Lamar Jackson had no business scoring on the play. He sprinted outside and had no reasonable lane to the end zone, a Syracuse defender closing in on him on the outside with help to the inside. So Jackson created a lane for himself, adding a new dimension to the football field by sizing up the defender and leaping over him, picking up a block and waltzing into the end zone untouched.
It’s uncommon for running backs and receivers to pull off such a maneuver. It’s almost unheard of for a quarterback. But Jackson has been no ordinary quarterback. He’s simply been one of the most entertaining college football players we’ve ever watched, a quarterback who has done things on the field that few others have ever been capable of.
Jackson won the Heisman Trophy on Saturday night, beating out Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, Oklahoma wide receiver Dede Westbrook and Michigan all-purpose star Jabrill Peppers in a lopsided race in which his victory appeared to be a foregone conclusion even after Louisville lost its last two games to Houston and Kentucky to finish 9-3. Jackson built an insurmountable lead because of plays like the Syracuse leap, the type of moment that stuck in voters’ minds and defined his season.
Jackson made a name for himself as a sophomore by making the seemingly impossible possible, by finding new ways to create spacefor himself to rack up the type of production rarely seen in college football history. He created countless memorable highlights and undoubtedly caused many sleepless nights for opposing coaches.
Through 12 games, Jackson has completed 57.6 percent of his passes for 3,390 yards, 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions, and he has rushed 234 times for 1,538 yards and 21 touchdowns. He ranks ninth in the nation in rushing yards per game and 12th in passing yards per attempt, proving to be a dominant, versatile weapon.
We saw flashes of this ability last year. As a true freshman, Jackson broke out late in the 2015 season, rushing for 186 yards against Kentucky and 226 yards in the Music City Bowl against Texas A&M. But after a full offseason as the starting quarterback, he made substantial growth as a passer, allowing coach Bobby Petrino to expand the offense. Jackson showed off his raw arm strength and an advanced understanding of the scheme, on top of his ability to make opposing defenses look foolish as a runner, with expert ball-handling combined with some of the most explosive running in the nation, regardless of position.
The result has been rarefied air, statistically, with 2012 winner Johnny Manziel the closest to Jackson in terms of rushing and passing production. The first Louisville player to win the Heisman, Jackson has more passing yards this season than anyone else who has rushed for 1,500 yards, and his numbers compare favorably to recent quarterback winners.
Jackson was so spectacular for so much of the season while other candidates struggled to separate themselves in the race, and it allowed him to weather a head-to-head loss to Clemson and Watson, who was the only one close to him in the vote total, in addition to the late-season slipups against the Wildcats and Cougars.
Watson closed the gap in the end with a strong finish in leading Clemson to another ACC title and another playoff bid, but ultimately he fell short, finishing second in the Heisman Trophy race after finishing third last year.
1. Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville (2,144)
2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson (1,524)
3. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma (361)
4. Dede Westbrook, WR, Oklahoma (209)
5. Jabrill Peppers, LB, Michigan (208)
6. Jake Browning, QB, Washington (182)
7. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama (132)
8. D’Onta Foreman, RB, Texas (131)
9. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford (103)
10-t. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State (67)
10-t. Donnel Pumphrey, RB, San Diego State (67)
Jameis Winston won the Heisman as a redshirt freshman, but the second-year sophomore Jackson is the youngest player to ever win the award, a few weeks shy of his 20th birthday. His speech after Saturday night’s announcement in New York was fittingly youthful, giddy and authentic.
Jackson expressed appreciation and gave thanks to his mother, his coaches and his teammates in a speech interspersed with pauses and interjections of “This is crazy, man” and “Oh, snap” as the magnitude of the moment, and of his accomplishments, overwhelmed him.
Rated the No. 28 quarterback recruit in the class of 2015 by 247Sports’ composite rankings, Jackson has vaulted to the top of the pack, taking a commanding lead in the Heisman Trophy conversation in September and never looking back. Jackson did so with attention-grabbing moments and performances that nobody else in the nation could match. He started the season with eight total touchdowns in the first half against Charlotte. The next week, he had 610 yards of total offense (411 passing, 199 rushing) in a 62-28 win over Syracuse. In Week 3, he solidified his national standing against a marquee opponent, with 362 total yards and five total touchdowns in a 63-20 win over Florida State.
Jackson became the somewhat rare Heisman candidate to attain heavy frontrunner status by the end of September and never relinquish it, even if his candidacy wasn’t perfect by the end of the season.
In the past decade, Tim Tebow and Robert Griffin III both won the Heisman as the quarterback of teams that finished 9-3. They deserved the award. The same goes for Jackson. Watson, the other three finalists and countless other players have had phenomenal seasons, but nobody has been more awe-inspiring than Jackson.
Jackson and Louisville will not win the national championship, and they will not compete in the College Football Playoff. But the Heisman Trophy rewards the most outstanding individual player in college football, which also often means the player whose individual performance will be best remembered, the player who leaves a lasting legacy. In the future, when we look back at the 2016 season, we’ll think about the national champion, but we’ll also think about Jackson, the historic numbers and the countless plays that seemed to defy physics and leave opponents with no answers and viewers unable to believe what they were watching.
The roles were reversed on Saturday night, Jackson the one expressing disbelief about a journey that led him to the Heisman Trophy, while the rest of us knew that, in reality, this year’s presentation lacked suspense.
After a season of doing the unbelievable, Jackson winning the Heisman was the only believable ending.