LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Lamar Jackson doesn’t mind being the center of attention on the football field. In fact, he seems to thrive when the spotlight is brightest.
Off the field is a different story for the Louisville quarterback.
He doesn’t like talking about himself but as his impressive play continues to draw rave reviews he understands that’s the price of fame.
“You just have to stay humble,” Jackson said Monday on a conference call with local and national media. “I just keep myself focused and try to prepare each week for our games.”
Jackson’s early play and video-game like statistics have catapulted him into the Heisman Trophy conversation and the Cardinals to No. 3 in the Top 25. The stage gets even bigger this week with Saturday’s Atlantic Coast Conference showdown between Louisville (4-0, 2-0 ACC) and fifth-ranked Clemson (4-0, 1-0).
“He’s done a nice job with it,” coach Bobby Petrino said Monday of Jackson’s handling of the spotlight. “We’ve tried to help him with that and get it to a place where he can handle more often what we ask him to do. … He’s very mature with it. I think he’s more comfortable talking and speaking, and we’ll keep working with him on it.”
He’s already very comfortable on the field.
Jackson has passed for 1,330 yards and 13 touchdowns — including five against Marshall last Saturday — and rushed for 526 yards and 12 TDs. Louisville is averaging nearly 64 points per contest thanks to these gaudy numbers that don’t surprise those who know him best.
“He’s a freak athlete and he can fly,” said Clemson starting linebacker Ben Boulware. “They do a bunch of funky formations to mess with your eyes. They like to incorporate him in the run game a lot, so you have to have an extra hat at the ball now to defend him. I feel like the defenses have had a hard time adapting to that.”
He piled up statistics and TDs while leading Boynton Beach Community High School to the Florida state playoffs. Jackson even leapt over defenders in practice and a game until being penalized for it, to his and his coach’s surprise.
“Heck, we didn’t know about that rule,” Boynton Beach coach Rick Swain quipped in a phone interview. The coach pointed out several changes in the 6-foot-3, 204-pound QB’s game since he’s been in college.
“He’s really improved as a passer, though he had a good, accurate arm in high school,” Swain said. Recruiters “saw the qualities he had at quarterback and interest really stepped up his senior year. I don’t think anybody recruited with the idea that he’d be anything but a quarterback.”
A major question was what type of quarterback Jackson would be under Petrino, whose preference has been pocket-type passers to execute his pro-style scheme. As he grooms Jackson to have more of a pocket presence, the quarterback has forced his coach expand the playbook to include more read-option and spread formations.
Jackson’s five-TD effort that dismantled FSU 63-20 drew praise from Michael Vick, who tweeted that Louisville’s signal caller is better than he was back at Virginia Tech. He lights up with every mention of the high compliment from his idol.
“Michael Vick is my favorite player,” Jackson said of a group that includes Cam Newton and former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, another south Florida standout.
Jackson’s idolization of those players might explain why he has set a high bar for himself this season.
He acknowledged relying on his athleticism and instincts during a freshman season in which Petrino played Jackson, Kyle Bolin and Reggie Bonnafon behind center. Jackson ended up setting school records for rushing yards by a QB for a season and career with 960, just over half of what he achieved throwing the ball (1,840).
Jackson’s focus on passing better has resulted in TD throws such as the 71-yarder to James Quick in stride for Louisville’s first score in Saturday’s 59-28 rout of Marshall . He passed for five TDs and ran for two scores but finished with a completion rate just over 50 percent, which to him is unacceptable.
“I want 80 percent, 95 percent,” Jackson joked. “That’s just me.”
Louisville receiver Jaylen Smith said Jackson’s sometimes-harsh assessment of his mistakes have helped keep his sudden success from going to his head. And with conference and national-title implications possibly riding on Saturday’s game, being his own worst critic isn’t a bad thing.
“He knows what he wants out of the offense and we agree with what he wants,” Smith said. “He wants to score on every possession. … You would think that (he’s hard on himself) with the way he grades himself, but that’s just fuel to his fire.”
His approach has quelled concerns about distractions entering Jackson’s latest measuring-stick game in Death Valley. Staying focused isn’t easy considering he’s on the cover of the latest Sports Illustrated and has been mentioned as a Heisman lock if he continues piling up TDs.
But in Jackson’s world there’s always room for growth, no matter how effortless he seems to make it look.
“Knowing my mistakes and being able to go back to fix them,” Jackson said, “that helps me out a lot.”
AP Sports Writer Pete Iacobelli in Clemson, South Carolina contributed to this report.