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How Lamar Jackson has taken the college football world by storm

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- For one night in the hills of West Virginia, Lamar Jackson became a magnet. Even before Louisville's cadre of buses arrived at Marshall's Joan C. Edwards Stadium on Saturday afternoon, a crowd of fans gathered behind the northern end zone, waiting on him to show his face. A middle-aged man carried a magazine he hoped Jackson would sign. He already owned the autographs of Willie Mays and Babe Ruth, and now it was Jackson's turn. Soon, the man's pregnant and enduringly patient wife said, he'd have to move all his memorabilia out of the spare bedroom to make room for the baby. Wearing green, it was clear the child would grow up rooting for the Thundering Herd.

But allegiances didn't matter when Jackson stepped off the bus to the classic "O Fortuna," which is a matter of ritual before every Louisville game. The drums boomed through the loudspeaker, and just like that, every eyeball gravitated toward Jackson, the Cardinals' 19-year-old sophomore quarterback who has emerged as college football's latest superstar. Anyone with a camera, cellphone or otherwise, pointed it straight at Jackson as he made a beeline toward the visiting locker room. Later, something as simple as a game of pitch-and-catch in shorts and a T-shirt drew the attention of at least a dozen on-field reporters.

An over-capacity crowd of 40,592 came to witness the Lamar Jackson Experience. They were either going to love him or hate him for what he was about to do to Marshall's defense, but they wouldn't dare look away. Bill Koontz, a 1971 Marshall graduate, drove more than 10 hours from his home in Kansas City, Missouri, to be there. He knew the Herd's four-game winning streak over Louisville was about to come to an end. But seeing Jackson in person brought some consolation.

"He's Superman," Koontz said. "The hell with Cam Newton."

Even the referees couldn't keep their cool around Jackson. One official lurched into his pocket during pregame warm-ups as Jackson walked past him on the sideline, fumbling his phone as he rushed to take a picture. He couldn't get the darn thing steady in time. So after Louisville finished stretching, the official waved off all manner of pretense and simply asked Jackson to hold still.

Before long, Jackson and the Cardinals were off and running, moving the chains at a blistering pace against an overmatched Marshall defense. Jackson bounced around in the pocket like a pinball, buzzed passes by the earholes of defenders, lobbed touchdowns down the sideline and shrugged off tacklers as he high-stepped into the end zone. Late in the game, a pair of Marshall ball boys stood on the Louisville sideline in awe of Jackson's effortless throwing motion. He flicked his wrist, and off it went like a dart, a tightly wound spiral each and every time.

"That ball," one of them said to the other, who shook his head in disbelief. "I can't get over how pretty it is. Even the long ones. They don't break."

Jackson, the Heisman Trophy front-runner, wound up passing for 417 yards and five touchdowns on the night. He scored twice more running the football as Louisville beat Marshall 59-28 to improve to 4-0.

College football's reigning touchdown king was ushered near midfield, where a television crew readied for a postgame interview. Jackson was deferential and kept the focus on his teammates. But defensive end Devonte Fields photobombed the live shot, walking through the background with a sign he borrowed from someone in the crowd. "Lamar #8 Jackson For Heisman," it read. Fields shoved a Sharpie in Jackson's hand when the interview ended. Jackson grinned and gave it his sweeping signature.

Moments later, a Marshall athletic trainer had something else for Jackson to autograph: a bright green cast wrapped around her right arm. A couple of paces away, a man and his 10-year-old son asked for a photo. Louisville's director of football ops and the team's strength and conditioning coach shouted that there was no time, that they had to go. But Jackson ignored them, smiled for the camera and patted the boy on the head. Little Kahlief Tye muttered, "Awesome," and couldn't manage another word. His big eyes refused to blink as Jackson jogged off the field and on to what's next.

On to No. 5-ranked Clemson on Saturday (8 p.m. ET, ABC). On to the next step in Louisville's quest to crash the playoff. On to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York City.

While the rest of the country remains in a daze over the player he has become, Jackson is unfazed. The most electrifying athlete in college football doesn't need another minute to process what being a superhero means or how he has reached 25 touchdowns faster than any player in the past decade -- faster than Newton, faster than Manziel, faster than Mariota or Luck or Tebow. The man many in Louisville call La-Marvelous believed he could do it the entire time.

***

Lamar Jackson believes he's failing.

No, seriously. Ask him.

He gave himself a D grade after he scored five touchdowns against then-No. 2 Florida State two weeks ago. An interception bugged him.

"I think it was seven incomplete passes I threw," he said. "Bad balls."

Against Marshall, he was even harder on himself. He didn't bother to look down at the stat sheet placed in front of him at the postgame news conference. Final grade: F.

"Four hundred and seventeen yards and five touchdowns passing is an F?" a reporter asked incredulously.

"How many completions did I have?" Jackson shot back.

"24."

"Out of what?"

"44."

"F," Jackson said, shaking his head. "F."

It's simple math, according to Jackson. Divide 24 by 44, and you'll get 54.5 percent. That's a failing grade in school, he explained.

You won't find this in any textbook, but the exchange rate he abides by is four touchdowns for every one interception. Wideout Jaylen Smith said Jackson feels as if he owes that to his teammates when he makes a mistake. Jackson will throw an interception, score the necessary four TDs and tell the offense, "All right, we're even now."

"He's a perfectionist," Smith said.

Smith ought to know. The two were roommates last season. They'd get home after a scrimmage or a game, and the first thing Jackson would do was pick up the phone and call his mother to tell her about everything he messed up on. Jackson wanted to make sure he pointed out all his flaws first, Smith said. Never mind that he scored 23 touchdowns and started seven games as a true freshman, all without knowing most of the playbook.

"He's a great competitor, and sometimes when you're a great competitor, things eat at you," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino said. "The things that absorb your thoughts are the mistakes you make, the ones you just miss. Sometimes you forget about all the really good plays and the great things you do."

But what others see as greatness, Jackson sees as ordinary.

That spectacular hurdle against Syracuse? He did the same thing during a game in high school at Boynton Beach in South Florida.

That blinding speed he showed against Florida State? He ran track, and once won a foot race against NBA star Rajon Rondo.

And that cannon for a right arm we've seen all year? Go find the video on YouTube of him throwing a ball from goal line to goal line

When Lamar Thomas, a former assistant at Louisville, began recruiting him, Jackson didn't want the typical deluge of compliments and empty promises. All it took was a handshake agreement with Petrino that he would be kept at quarterback. Then Jackson asked Thomas for a scouting report on all the quarterbacks on the roster, and the two sat and discussed their strengths and weaknesses.

If he won the starting job, Jackson told Thomas, "I'm going to take it to the next stratosphere."

It took some time to beat out the competition and even more time to learn Petrino's complex offense. But that's where the unique part of Jackson's perfectionism kicks in: He doesn't stay frustrated long. He drops his head, shakes his fist and then lets it roll right off his back.

The first pass he ever threw in college was an interception against Auburn. Garrick McGee, who was then Louisville's offensive coordinator, was worried about the rookie and asked him, "Are you all right?" He said Jackson told him, "That doesn't bother me at all." Jackson just wanted back in. He went to the huddle and told his teammates, "We have to score -- fast."

"That's when I said to myself, 'This kid might be special. This guy might be what everyone was looking for,'" said McGee, who is now the offensive coordinator at Illinois. "He was just thinking about what we had to do to win. And that's what separates him from anybody that I've seen. It has nothing to do with him and his success. He just wants to win. It just so happens that to win he's going to score five touchdowns."

What no one could have predicted is that he'd average more than five touchdowns.

Now McGee thinks the Heisman is Jackson's to lose. He called his former QB "Michael Jordan in shoulder pads."

It seems the only person who isn't in hysterics over his sudden success is Jackson himself. Since he was 7 years old, he said, he knew he "wanted to be somebody" playing football.

"I've been working hard," he said. "I've been working very hard for a long time. I've been praying and now it's happening."

***

Sadly, in his quest to take over college football, Jackson has had to relinquish the NBA2K crown he claimed playing with the Cleveland Cavaliers last season. He bought the latest version of the video game when it came out in September, but he hasn't had the energy to open it. When he got home from Marshall at 4 a.m. Sunday, all he wanted was to do was climb in bed and sleep. He rested most of the day, got treatment, lounged around and watched Netflix. He's trying out the quasi-superhero show "The Arrow" right now. For comedies, his go-to movie is "Friday."

Other than that, it's schoolwork, listening to the rapper Kodak Black and practice. Football is his hobby, he said. Getting anything more personal than that is a lost cause. Either he's not telling or there's nothing there. When his former high school coach was asked what Jackson does other than football, he said simply, "He trains."

"I'm at the stadium for fun." Jackson said. "I don't really do anything."

Lyndon Clemons, Jackson's former vice principal at Boynton Beach High, said it's important to understand that Jackson is still only 19 years old. "There's not a lot extra," he explained. Jackson is an open book, but that doesn't mean there are many pages not earmarked for football. What's more, his mother is a very private woman, and that has carried over to her son. It's going to take a while before they're used to all this newfound attention.

But watch Jackson long enough, and it's easy to see why his nickname was "Smiley Face" as a child. On the sideline and around the football complex, he's always in a good mood. Even the way he speaks, barely above a whisper, draws you in. He's effervescent. He seems to giggle constantly. It's only when you bring up the Heisman Trophy and his individual performance that he tightens up a bit.

He expected the success, but he didn't understand all the cameras that would follow. It's probably the only thing he didn't plan for. He shuts it out by staying in his room, he said.

Deangelo Brown, a Louisville defensive lineman who is one of a handful of fifth-year seniors on the team, said he has never seen Jackson talk about himself. He doesn't worry about Jackson becoming the next Johnny Manziel -- another young, second-year player who was all the rage before fame sent him careening off in the wrong direction -- because, Brown said, Jackson "cares too much."

"He's way more focused," Brown said. "He's not really all in the party scene, he's not really in all the flashes. He's just a guy that loves football, loves to have fun, loves to win."

Said Jackson: "I stay on the path of maintaining. ... If you try to, like, dwell on that like you're the man or something, good things won't happen to you."

If he keeps up his current pace, Jackson will break the FBS record for touchdowns (63) with two regular-season games to spare. Colt Brennan, who set the record in 2006 at Hawaii, had 10 fewer scores than Jackson's 25 through four games.

On Saturday night in Death Valley, Jackson will go head-to-head against another former sophomore quarterback who found himself in the thick of the Heisman conversation last season: Clemson's Deshaun Watson.

Tigers coach Dabo Swinney, like so many others, has fallen all over himself praising Jackson this week. He already has called him a right-handed Michael Vick and pointed out that he's not just a scrambler, but someone who can "absolutely throw the ball all over the park."

"Lamar Jackson is a weapon, no question," Swinney said. "He makes a lot of plays. He's a handful."

Brown said the game plan is simple: Stop Watson and "keep feeding Lamar the ball."

"The more chances he gets, the more touchdowns he can score," Brown said.

And at this point, any number of touchdowns shouldn't be surprising.

After all, it's time we all accepted a fact that Louisville's star quarterback came to grips with long ago: Lamar Jackson belongs in the end zone.