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Behind Lamar Jackson, expectations rising at Louisville

Impressive bowl performances often provide the momentum a program needs headed into the following season.

That is especially the case when the majority of starters return.

So it is easy to see why expectations are rising around Louisville. Dazzling quarterback Lamar Jackson returns as the definitive starter, and that will no doubt help him and the nine returning starters around him. One of the biggest issues the Cards had throughout 2015 was an undefined leader for the offense. Louisville played three quarterbacks, but it was not until the bowl game when Jackson truly flourished.

Why? The coaches had a month to prepare him to be the starter. They also had a month to prepare a game plan tailored just for him.

“When Lamar started practice in August, you could tell right away he had some special abilities and could be a real special guy and then we had such a hard early schedule,” coach Bobby Petrino said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. “If we would have had a schedule that some of the other people in our league had, where we could spend three weeks a month developing, then I think it would have happened earlier. We really took advantage of the time in between our last game and the bowl game.”

The results were obvious. Jackson threw for 227 yards and ran for 226 yards in the 27-21 win over Texas A&M and already holds the school record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback with 960. His performance was among the best in bowl season, and got the hype train going.

But so did the performance of linebacker Devonte Fields, who had three sacks against the Aggies. Fields ended the season with 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks; each sack and nearly each tackle for loss came in the final seven games.

His decision to return is huge. But he was not the only one to give the defense a boost. Underclassmen Keith Kelsey, Josh Harvey-Clemons and DeAngelo Brown all decided to come back, giving the Cards a huge lift headed into the offseason. They return four of their five top tacklers, their top two players in sacks and three of their top four players in tackles for loss.

“We’ll be very good on defense,” Petrino said. “It’s nice to have the juniors returning. Devonte Fields did a great job as the year went on, improving each week and getting better. His production the last half of the season was very, very good. He joined us in August and he was very much out of shape. Fought through it all, and I was very happy with the way he finished the season. Keith Kelsey is one of our biggest leaders. To have him come back, besides being such a good leader in the locker room, his production on the field shows everyone when you work hard at things, you see the results.

“Josh Harvey-Clemons coming back is a great deal. He needed it just because he had been out of football for a year, so it will be really good for him, and then DeAngelo coming back helps us inside because we did lose a couple players.”

So the goal this spring is to use the way 2015 ended as a springboard into a new season. Fair or not, much of that will center on Jackson’s development as a passer. Jackson only completed 55 percent of his passes, and threw eight interceptions to 12 touchdowns.

“We just want to continue what he did in the preparation for the bowl, which is to get better with his footwork, understand coverages and timing of the passing game,” Petrino said. “And get his body in position to become more accurate. He’s got such a strong wrist and hand, that sometimes he doesn’t get his body in positon. He can still make throws but he’s not as accurate as he needs to be. We work a lot on his lower body and getting his feet right and stepping in the right direction and being on line with the pass. He’s had some issues where he’s not completely on line all the time, and therefore you leave the ball inside or outside of your target.”

All the young players around him will be a year older, too. With another year comes more familiarity and much more improvement. Louisville hopes that translates into more wins.