Lamar’s Freshman Campaign: A Comparative Study & Caveat For 2016
By Dave Lackford
The 2016 Buzz
There are plenty of reasons for Cards’ fans to be excited about the 2016 season. For one, the defense is stacked. They return ultra-talented edge rusher DeVonte Fields, who caught fire in the second half of the 2015 season, registering 10.5 sacks in the last seven games of the slate, including 7.5 over the last three. DT DeAngelo Brown, anchors the defensive front as a returning senior and LB Keith Kelsey, last year’s leading tackler with 107, will also be leading a talented line backer unit. The secondary has some kinks but returns all of its starters from 2015 and should improve, especially with the talent up front forcing the QB to make quick decisions and precise pre-snap reads.
While Louisville’s defense looks to be one of the best in the ACC heading into 2016, the offense is what has everyone buzzing, and that’s due to their electrifying QB Lamar Jackson. While some of the offseason hype on Louisville talk radio and sports blogs centers around the returning talent on defense and trendy pre-season top 20 rankings, the most exciting topic is the hype Lamar Jackson has been getting as a dark horse Heisman candidate. I’m a card carrying cynic of the “get off my lawn” demographic. So naturally, I had to do the knowledge on Lamar Jackson to see if the hype is justified or just click bait littered around the dystopia that is the college football off-season.
Comparing Freshman Campaigns
The Card faithful thinks Lamar walks on bourbon, but the nationally perceived knock on Lamar is that he isn’t a polished passer. That’s a defensible take, but it’s a bit myopic. While no one with a respectable opinion would argue that Lamar’s running ability (960 yards on 163 totes and 11 touchdowns) should be overlooked, let’s do just that and pretend Lamar was a mere pocket passer and compare his numbers. I’m going to juxtapose his inaugural campaign with the freshman season of a QB from Louisville that was pretty good, as well as two other top ACC QBs.
Staying in Louisville for the first part of the analysis, let’s compare Lamar to another Cards’ QB from recent memory. Want to start a fight in Louisville? Talk bad about Teddy Bridgewater in a bar on Bardstown Road.
Teddy, like Lamar, came to Louisville as a true freshman QB from Florida and won the starting job. Unlike Teddy, Lamar didn’t officially take full control of the offense until the final game of the 2016 season, a 27-21 victory over Texas A&M in the Music City Bowl. Teddy B on the other hand, won the starting job in week three, after the first quarter against hated rival Kentucky. Once crowned the starter, he never relinquished the thrown. Lamar however, was yo-yo’d in and out of the starting position all season. He threw only one pass against Clemson, he played one snap against Virginia (a 45 yard run), and didn’t play at all against Syracuse.
Lamar finished the year with 135 completions on 247 attempts for a 55% completion percentage, 1840 yards, 12 TDs and 8 picks in 10 games. Those passing numbers aren’t exactly elite, but neither were Teddy’s 191 completions of 296 throws (64.5%) for 2129 yards, 14 TDs/12 INTs in 10.75 games.
It must be noted that Teddy was throwing against the #113 ranked Uconn, #99 ranked Cincinnati, #98 ranked Syracuse, #96 ranked Marshall, #83 ranked USF, #78 ranked UNC, and #72 ranked Pitt, pass defenses respectively. Lamar however, had to face the #4 ranked Texas A&M, #6 ranked Boston College, #21 ranked FSU, #28 ranked UK, #32 ranked Wake Forest, #36 ranked NCSU, and #54 ranked Pittsburgh defenses respectively. Also, Teddy didn’t play QB the first half of the Auburn and Pitt games, was removed in the second half of the Houston game, and entered the UK game in relief of Kyle Bolin with 4:42 remaining in the first quarter. So if you add it all up, Teddy played in 47 consecutive quarters his freshman season against inferior competition, while Lamar Jackson played in 36 quarters, sporadically, against 7 top 55 defenses.
Those numbers alone can’t prove that Lamar is a better passer than Teddy, but when the totality of the data is taken into consideration, those numbers also can’t prove that Teddy was a better freshman passer than Lamar. Also, the eye test suggests that while the stats may be similar, they are two totally different quarterbacks. What they both have in common, undoubtedly, is how they both electrified the Louisville fan base and gave the Derby City, an unequivocal college hoops town, a reason to stick their chests out and head down to Papa John’s Stadium expecting to watch their boys win some football games. In the end, that’s all that matters to Cardinal’s fans.
Comparing Lamar to Teddy is pretty common among Cards’ fans, stacking Lamar’s numbers against other highly touted ACC freshman signal callers isn’t. Here are some of the ACC’s top QB’s and a look at what they did as true Freshman:
Brad Kaaya, Miami: 13 games 378 attempts 221 Completions 58.5% 3198 yards 26 TD 12 INT
Kaaya started from day one, against UL at Papa John’s in 2014, and hasn’t missed a game since. It is pure sophistry to say that Lamar’s numbers match up to Kaaya’s and I will stipulate that they don’t. However, if Lamar would have played against the butter soft passing defenses of Syracuse (#101 nationally) and Virginia (#97 nationally) Lamar’s passing numbers may have been more favorable in comparison. This is especially true when one considers that Lamar completed 55% of his passes while Kaaya connected on 58.5% of his. Plus, Kaaya can’t run like Lamar. I know I said that we ain’t lookin at all that but this is my piece and I’ll do what I want.
DeShaun Watson, Clemson: 8 games 137 attempts 93 completions (67.9%) 1466 yards 14 TD 2 INT
Unlike Kaaya, but similar to Lamar, Watson didn’t have a strangle hold on his team’s starting QB spot for the entire season. In fact Watson missed 5 games to injury and got spot action in games against Georgia and Georgia Tech. If we’re being honest, stats don’t tell the whole story of Watson’s freshman campaign, but the data that is available suggests that Watson was more efficient based upon his TD/INT ratio and the fact that he completed 68% of his throws. What is comparable between Jackson and Watson however, is that both of them made their teams better and infinitely more fun to watch when they were under center, rather than their statuesque incumbents.
THE BOTTOM LINE
I’m not saying that Lamar is going to put together a sophomore campaign similar to Watson’s 67.8 comp%, 4104 yards, and 35TD/13INT. I do believe however, Lamar is capable of duplicating Kaaya’s sophomore passing numbers of 62 comp% 3238 yards 16TD/5INT. I would actually be surprised if he didn’t surpass Kaaya’s sophomore production. Bobby Petrino is no slouch when it comes to developing quarterbacks and Lamar has a slew of playmaking receivers and tight ends at his disposal this season.
All of this being said, when looking at Louisville’s offense there is one giant red flag that jumps out at the observer, their offensive line is sievelike. The unit gave up the second most sacks (44) in the nation, an alarming number considering Lamar is a moving target and one of the most elusive players in college football. This line’s deficiency may very well hinder Lamar Jackson’s progression this season.
While some improvement is expected based on player development, there wasn’t much new blood pumped into the offensive line and the same coach, Chris Klenakis, returns to guide the unit. A bad O-line will ruin a young quarterback’s development faster than anything else, especially one that can pull down the ball and take off for a touchdown once a defense breaks rush lane assignments. That’s a romantic way to look at the situation. The more obvious reason poor O-line play hinders a QB’s development is that they will get him killed. Jackson was injured against Boston College and then again at Wake Forrest. In the game before BC, he suffered five sacks at the hands of FSU. The following week against BC he was bagged 7 times. Then, he exited in the third quarter against WF after suffering 3 sacks in that game and would end up missing the next two games against Syracuse and Virginia. When you have a running QB that takes off the way Jackson does, your line cannot subject him to further cumulative damage that results from getting sacked.
The Cards’ line has to improve significantly this year if Jackson is to become a complete QB. If not, Lamar will remain a threat to take off and kill you with his running prowess, but it will be impossible for him to make the leap as a true passer. Either way, Jackson will continue to ignite the home crowd and cause defensive coordinator’s to earn their salaries. Provided he can stay alive.