The reinvention of Lamar Jackson began with breakfast — specifically, getting Jackson to actually eat a full breakfast. Jackson needed more calories, no small task for a picky eater. The Louisville support staff knew he loved eggs. The solution: steak, egg and cheese burritos to boost his calorie intake just before workouts.
But why, exactly, did Jackson need reinventing? Jackson gained more than 5,000 yards and accounted for 51 touchdowns to become the youngest Heisman Trophy winner in history. Yet the final three games of Louisville’s 2016 campaign featured ugly losses to Houston, Kentucky and LSU. Jackson was sacked 22 times and had five total touchdowns in those games, causing him to register as an afterthought heading into this season.
“We didn’t finish last year,” he said. “A lot of people have seen that, and feel like we quit. It wasn’t right. I’m still hot about that. I don’t like that. I’m just teed off about it. I can’t wait to play.”
As the year went on, defenses wised up to his skill set, and Jackson no longer had an unfiltered advantage. It became obvious both he, and the offense, had to change.
Coaches evaluated every play from last season, and realized revamping the offensive line would be key. They also came up with a plan for Jackson to bulk up, starting with the meal that starts the day.
As a freshman and sophomore, Jackson never took nutrition all that seriously. Back in December, with all-you-can-eat breakfast buffets awaiting him before Heisman media obligations, he usually ate two bites of pancakes, maybe some bacon and that would be it until lunch. But coaches know growing into a more well-rounded quarterback also means growing physically — in Jackson’s case that meant adding 10 pounds.
That required doubling his calorie intake. In addition to breakfast burritos, Jackson was allowed to drink as much chocolate milk as he wanted — each 12-ounce bottle contains 400 calories, an easy way to keep piling them on.
“He had the physical gifts, and now understands how nutrition can benefit him in his weight gain, his strength and his speed and everything,” said Joe Miday, Louisville’s head strength and conditioning coach. “That was the last part of development I was waiting for.”
While Jackson worked his physical transformation, Louisville coaches focused on figuring out what broke down during that losing streak.
The first sign of trouble arrived in October. Duke, a 35-point underdog, came to town determined to slow down Jackson. Coach David Cutcliffe decided to play keep away from Jackson and the Louisville offense, slowing down the pace of the game so Jackson stayed on the sideline longer. It nearly worked. Louisville struggled to win, while Jackson was held to his lowest yardage and touchdown total to that point in the season.
Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall and his staff watched intently and devised a plan two weeks later that incorporated some of the same ideas with one added element: overwhelm the Louisville offensive line. The Cavaliers got after Jackson with such ferocity that the Cards found themselves trailing late into the fourth quarter. Jackson ended throwing a 29-yard touchdown pass to Jaylen Smith with 13 seconds left to pull out the win.
Jackson was sacked five times in that game and, more often than not, looked flustered and out of sorts. Three weeks later, Houston prepared its game plan: another relentless, all-out attack set to disrupt Jackson.
“Everybody on our defense has more than two or three blitz plays, so they can’t block us all and we knew he was a runner more than he was a passer,” Houston linebacker Matthew Adams said. “Either he was going to run or throw the deep post balls across the middle. He’s got great receivers, so really we put that pressure on him and wouldn’t let his receivers get down the field.”
Jackson was sacked 11 times in that 36-10 loss. Louisville lost the following week to rival Kentucky 41-38 and suddenly, the Heisman favorite went into the ceremony on a two-game losing streak.
Fortunately for Jackson, it was difficult for the other finalists to compete with his overall body of work. He won the Heisman handily over Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, then began to prepare for a nasty LSU defense that dedicated its bowl season to one mission.
Defensive coordinator Dave Aranda worked tirelessly on film study with the players, getting them to the point where they anticipated each play based on the way the Louisville players set. Jackson ended his Heisman season with his worst performance: He was sacked eight times, held to a season-low 33 yards rushing and Louisville lost 29-9.
“A lot of teams started bringing their safeties up, everybody was within 10 to 12 yards of the line of scrimmage,” said Nick Petrino, Louisville’s quarterbacks coach. “You did start seeing those type of things, and a big part of what we do in the offseason is self-evaluation, figuring out what can we now do to counteract that.”
One such evaluation led Louisville coach Bobby Petrino to hire his longtime friend Mike Summers to coach the offensive line, and he signed five linemen in February, including three who are four-star prospects.
Jackson also has tried to master reading defenses, making checks at the line and perfecting his footwork and stance when he is in the pocket. He continues to take a notepad with him into the film room to jot down notes on plays where he could have done better. The goal is for Jackson to stop thinking on each down and just react more quickly and naturally to what he is seeing.
He has become more vocal, too. Coaches have noted how quick he is now to either correct teammates or make changes at the line depending on what he sees.
“We can’t let that same thing happen two years in a row,” Jackson said. “We’re trying to go 15-0. I’m on it. I’m on top of it. I’ve got to fix it. Whoever is doing it wrong, I’m on it. Even me. If I know I’m messing up, I’m teed off at myself. I feel like I should have no mistakes right now. I’m the leader of the team. I shouldn’t have any mistakes.”
Everything Jackson and his coaches did this offseason was geared toward restoring the advantage they believe they have with him under center. Winning the Heisman has done nothing to change his personality or drive; it may have enhanced those qualities. That only feeds his unyielding determination to put together the perfect game — and end those questions about last season for good.