CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- A year ago, Lamar Jackson shifted uncomfortably in his seat atop a dais in front of a small crowd of reporters. He was a soft-spoken sophomore coming off a rocky freshman season, and he was Louisville's representative at the annual ACC Kickoff -- in large part because head coach Bobby Petrino wanted to see how Jackson would handle the crowd. Public speaking was not Jackson's activity of choice.
But a funny thing happened as Jackson answered a few softballs early in the day. He grew increasingly comfortable, smiled enthusiastically and joked with reporters. He began telling stories about football, growing up in Florida, never watching TV and his biggest fan: his mom. Pretty soon, he had the assembled media hooked, and when his time ended, the consensus was that Louisville had a burgeoning star on its hands.
That turned out to be a significant underestimation of Jackson's future.
No, these preseason media shindigs don't often provide much hard news, and few coaches or players offer up a noteworthy scoop in advance of fall camp. But occasionally, as was the case with Jackson's debut at the podium last year, it becomes clear that a star is on the rise.
This year, Jackson will headline the ACC's kickoff event, the reigning Heisman winner now an established newsmaker. But Dalvin Cook and Deshaun Watson will be absent from the proceedings, as will Ben Boulware's makeshift Capri pants, so some of the glamour will be missing in 2017. Unless, like last year, a new star emerges.
That could very well be Clemson's Christian Wilkins, who is already a household name among Tigers fans and an Internet meme for those who enjoyed his post-championship splits in January. If anyone is poised to parrot Boulware's bravado for reporters, it's the boisterous Wilkins.
Or perhaps it’s Florida State's Deondre Francois, who hopes to follow in Jackson's footsteps as the next great quarterback in the ACC, and retrace Watson's path to a national title.
It would be a surprise if an offensive lineman stole the show, but then again, Pitt's Brian O'Neill is no ordinary offensive lineman. He's the reigning Piesman winner, and that comes with some serious cachet among a group of journalists who can appreciate players who like to eat.
ACC Kickoff annually devolves into a debate about whether Miami "is back," and the buzz this year might reach an apex, just in time for sophomore linebacker Shaq Quarterman to deliver even more hype.
Or perhaps the star will be Derwin James, the Florida State phenom often called one of the best pure football players in the country, despite rarely saying much in front of the cameras during his two years in Tallahassee, Florida.
That's the beauty of this year's event in many ways. Jackson offers a headliner, but the supporting cast certainly has potential for intrigue. And in July, when the season is so tantalizingly close and hopes around the country remain high on nearly every campus, it's always fun to wonder who will take the first step toward stardom this week.