Is college football — and Clemson — ready for Lamar Jackson 5.0?

Lamar Jackson doesn’t watch TV. Oh, sure, the Louisville QB is a gamer like most every other guy on a college campus, and every so often he might binge a Netflix show. But it’s a rare occasion when he’ll slump down on the couch and channel surf, or flip over to SportsCenter to get caught up on scores.

All of this is to say that it’s quite possible that no one in the country has gawked at Jackson’s insane, circus-level highlights less often than Jackson himself. He just doesn’t care that much.

This is true, too, of the months of revisionist Heisman talk. Last December, after posting some of the most eye-popping stats in college football history, Jackson stood on a stage to accept the Heisman wearing a red suit coat with black lapels, offering a gracious speech with equal parts enthusiasm and humility. For a whole bunch of college football fans, this was a travesty.

“I’ve had to block a lot of them on Twitter,” Jackson said this summer, as Clemson fans, in particular, bombarded his feed with accusations that he’d usurped the award from a more deserving Deshaun Watson.

That quip, not surprisingly, elicited a deluge of tongue-in-cheek congratulations that someone at Louisville finally figured out how to block.

It wasn’t just the Clemson folks. That Florida State team that surrendered 63 points to Jackson last September? The Seminoles opened as the odds-on favorites to win the ACC in 2017, while Jackson and Louisville were a distant third. The Heisman pundits? They had forgotten about Jackson altogether, happily anointing everyone from Sam Darnold to Baker Mayfield as the next big thing. A New York Daily News writer, so perplexed by the oversight, wondered if race — Jackson is black, and a large majority of sportswriters are white — played a role, never mind that those same writers were around when Jackson won the award last year.

Any explanation seemed plausible given that there simply wasn’t a template for a returning Heisman winner facing so much inexplicable doubt. Last October, Michael Vick was so effusive in his praise of Jackson as his rightful successor as college football’s most dynamic QB that Jackson had to ask the Virginia Tech legend to tone down the hype. Now, there seemed to be no hype at all.

Here’s the funny thing about all that. Jackson, quite honestly, doesn’t care.

“Heisman’s not on my mind at all,” Jackson said after his most recent Heisman-esque performance, a five-touchdown thrashing of North Carolina. “I don’t really care about it. I have one of my own, so I’m just focused on winning those games. That’s the most important thing. Without winning games, it’s nothing.”

‘He can make something out of nothing, and he can do it all day’

Midway through the second quarter against North Carolina last week, Bobby Petrino thought he called the perfect play. On the snap, Tar Heels corner Patrice Rene came on a blitz, and no one picked it up. Rene shot through the backfield, but in a moment that seemed to defy physics, he skimmed off the wiry Jackson, who then nonchalantly stepped up, spotted Jaylen Smith downfield, launched a laser that hit his receiver in stride, and then celebrated a 75-yard touchdown pass.

It wasn’t the coverage Jackson expected. Pressure came instantly. A running lane was there if he wanted it. A year ago, that play unfolds a dozen different ways, but none would’ve been a 75-yard bomb.

“It just shows his athleticism and poise and maturity,” Petrino said. “A year ago, he takes off and runs.”

This year, Jackson is changing protections at the line of scrimmage. He’s throwing hot reads. He’s tossing balls into the stands when a play breaks down rather than scrambling in circles. He’s completing 65 percent of his passes.

It has been just two games, but the word is out. Jackson has reached another level.

“That was Lamar 5.0,” Smith said after the UNC game. “Five hundred yards, that’s Lamar 5.0.”

When a Sports Illustrated story in January quoted an anonymous ACC coach saying Jackson had no shot to play in the NFL, Jackson took it personally. He put on weight this offseason to make it easier to absorb hits. He worked under center, something he’d never done routinely, to better fit in Petrino’s pro-style sets. He studied protections, hoping to ensure a new-look offensive line was in a position to succeed. He said he doesn’t like running much anymore. He wants to distribute the ball to his receivers. He embraced Petrino’s “Perfect Thursday” practices, and more often than not, he lived up to the name.

This is bad news for ACC defenses.

“He’s much improved as a passer, and he’s proven that in his first couple of games,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “Where last year he was more apt to take the ball down and just take off and make a play with his legs, now he will, even with pressure, he will set in there and find the open receiver.”

Fedora compared that 75-yard TD pass to one he watched Vince Young make at Texas, when Fedora was an assistant at Oklahoma State. A corner came free on a blitz, and magic happened.

Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, another refugee from the Big 12, made the same comparison.

“Sometimes the worst thing you could do against Vince Young was cover everybody, and Lamar has that, too,” Venables said. “He can make something out of nothing, and he can do it all day.”

Even Jackson knows these first two games were an appetizer. If he has really reached a new level, really taken that next step from freak athlete to elite QB, he’ll need to prove it against Clemson on Saturday night (ABC & ESPN App, 8 p.m. ET). Just a few hours after Jackson filled his own highlight reel against the Tar Heels, the Tigers’ defense took the field and sacked Auburn QB Jarrett Stidham 11 times.

A sign of respect

Venables likes to find the really ridiculous clips, the ones when the defense does everything right, when a pass-rusher comes off the edge to bowl over a lineman or the secondary’s technique is flawless and there’s absolutely nothing open downfield. Venables flashes that film at the front of Clemson’s defensive meeting room, and then he waits for Jackson to do the impossible.

“Very quickly, they’re on the edge of their seats,” Venables said.

Groans, followed by a few oohs and aahs followed by something bordering on panic.

“That’s when you know,” Venables said. “He’s got their respect.”

Jackson earned plenty of respect in a 42-36 loss at Clemson a year ago. He helped Lousiville erase a 28-10 halftime deficit while racking up 457 total yards and three touchdowns in a game that ended when James Quick stepped out of bounds at the Clemson 3-yard line on fourth-and-12, just a few inches shy of a first down and a probable win over the eventual national champions. It was, ironically, that loss to the Tigers that secured Jackson’s Heisman. He was Superman, and that one false step along the sideline with 33 seconds left to play was his kryptonite.

Then came 11 sacks against Houston and a late loss to Kentucky and a bowl blowout at the hands of LSU, and the narrative shifted. No more was Jackson felled only by bad luck. His vulnerability was, instead, a woeful offensive line that waved pass-rushers by like crossing guards, and now the opposition knew the great Lamar Jackson was, indeed, mortal.

That was the talk all offseason. Sure, the kid was a fine football player, but the magic was gone. Clemson fans, in particular, lauded the theory that Jackson’s gaudy numbers were padded against weak competition, ignoring that he was on the bench for big chunks of blowouts, thrashed one of the ACC’s powerhouses and, of course, utterly flustered the Tigers’ own defense. No matter. He’d lost three straight, been sacked six more times than any other player in the country and completed just 10 passes in his bowl game. What have you done for me lately?

“That fell back on us,” said Louisville left tackle Geron Christian. “Just knowing what he did all year, we knew he deserved [the Heisman], and for people to even put that on him because of what we did, it put a chip on our shoulder.”

Here’s the thing though. To hear Christian tell it, those late-season struggles were not a sign of Jackson’s weakness. They were a result of his success.

Nobody was mistaking Louisville’s line for bulldozers, but the unit had held its own in front of Jackson for much of the year. That Houston game in mid-November was something different, a colossal failure on a national stage. So what happened?

“We started getting a lot of stuff thrown at us, and it was stuff we hadn’t worked as much,” Christian said. “It was a lot of blitzes, overloading protections. We weren’t ready.”

Point being, the line had looked passable early in the year because Jackson made everyone look better. When coaches ran out of other options to stop the Louisville QB, they threw up their hands and tossed the kitchen sink at him. It was all too much for a line that wasn’t prepared, and Jackson paid the price.

Then hear Jackson tell the story. It all comes off a little different. No, he’s not giving back his Heisman, but he will still shoulder the blame for the Cardinals’ late-season collapse.

“It was a lot on me,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t just them. Sometimes I could throw the ball away, but I tried to make a play. It’s a team game.”

‘Lamar has no ceiling, and he has no roof’

Jackson doesn’t watch TV, but he does read Twitter, so when North Carolina linebacker Andre Smith boasted that his defense would “stop anything he tries to do” in advance of Jackson’s trip to Chapel Hill, word got back to the Louisville QB.

At 11 a.m. the day before the game, Jackson took to Twitter.

It was a reference to a song and a cartoon and, well, suffice it to say it went over the heads of plenty of old folks and found its intended target in North Carolina’s locker room.

It’s not that Jackson was mad. In fact, he offered a familiar hug to Smith after the game. But Jackson has heard enough of all this, and he’s ready to remind people that he is, still, the best player in college football.

“I was just letting him know I heard what you said, and we’re going to come to play,” Jackson said.

Opponents talk smack at their own risk, and Clemson isn’t interested in poking the lion. Instead, they are dutifully effusive in their praise. Dabo Swinney called Jackson one of the most dynamic players he has seen. Christian Wilkins said Jackson was one of the two best QBs he has ever faced, and he couldn’t actually think of whom the other might be. Venables at least suggested he enjoyed the challenge of trying to slow Jackson, but even that boast regressed.

“It’s fun when you first turn on the film,” Venables said, “and the longer you watch, the sicker you get.”

Why was it everyone decided Jackson wasn’t so great anymore? Chalk it up to recency bias, which ironically, has also served to reignite those Heisman hopes after Jackson opened the season with his usual flair. In his first two games last season, when Jackson took the country by storm, he personally racked up 1,015 yards of offense. This year, against better competition, he has 1,010.

In the aftermath of the dominance at North Carolina, Smith, the Louisville receiver, quipped, “They say the ceiling is the roof around here,” (a nod to the ubiquitous Michael Jordan quote in Chapel Hill) “well, Lamar has no ceiling, and he has no roof.”

This is the beauty of Jackson for those still interested in watching without the baggage of expectations. It’s what terrifies opposing coaches into singing his praises at every turn for fear they’ll be the next person he tries to prove wrong. It’s why Louisville’s late-season struggles felt so bitterly disappointing and why the rekindled magic is already so much fun in 2017.

It all also adds a little extra meaning to Saturday’s game. Was it right that last year’s game crowned Jackson with personal glory and Clemson with a team championship when both fan bases now seem to be jealous of the other’s prize?

“Really, we all feel like we owe them,” Christian said. “We know what we could’ve done, what we should’ve done. This year, we have to go out and get what we deserve and what we should’ve gotten last year.”

For Jackson though, this isn’t about righting a wrong. He’s not promising magic or highlights or heroism. He’s promising simplicity.

“Deliver the ball,” he said. “Score touchdowns.”

Perhaps if he can do that against the defending champs, against this dominant defensive line, against the critical fans who’ve dogged him for months, maybe that will be enough to finally convince the masses that they’re witnessing college football’s best player.

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