As other draft-eligible players made decisions to skip bowl games this postseason, Lamar Jackson got to work in the Louisville meeting rooms and the practice field, never once entertaining the possibility.
Jackson has steadfastly refused to discuss his future, telling coach Bobby Petrino they would talk about it after the TaxSlayer Bowl on Saturday (Noon ET, ESPN and ESPN App).
This is where Jackson is different, and always has been different. Give him some praise, and he deflects to his teammates. Ask about his best on-field performance, and he deflects to the best team win. Note his improvement as a passer, he points to the work he did with his coaches.
"I have Mississippi State to worry about right now," Jackson says. "I'm not worried about what's happening in January. I've got to focus on my teammates."
"That's how special a kid he is," Petrino says.
As he has every day since he arrived at Louisville, Jackson has worked tirelessly to get ready for the bowl game in Jacksonville, Florida. It is a work ethic his mother instilled in him at an early age, when she began to prepare him to play quarterback in Boynton Beach, Florida, a four-hour drive from Jacksonville.
Jackson always had a competitive streak, but Felicia Jones taught him how to work, how to be humble and how to look out for his teammates. She drove Jackson to strive for perfection, an endless quest that continues on, despite the bookshelf of trophies and pages of records he has collected since his Louisville career began.
As dual-threat quarterbacks went from novelty to the norm over the past decade, Jackson put his own twist on what it meant to run and throw. Nobody had seen a quarterback with his 4.3 speed hurdle, spin and outrun defenders on one play, then launch a 70-yard pass on the next. Sure, we had seen a bullish runner in Tim Tebow; a theatrical player in Johnny Manziel; a physically imposing presence in Cam Newton.
But nobody since Michael Vick had blended the speed, moves and arm strength Jackson had, and when he started filling highlight reels as a sophomore, Jackson became appointment television. Jackson went on to become the youngest winner in Heisman Trophy history, but he started to get criticized for several subpar performances to close the regular season. More backlash followed after a dismal performance in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl against LSU. Suddenly, national pundits began to pile on Jackson, as if what unfolded in the final month should be placed squarely on him.
Then this season started much the way last season ended: Louisville struggled early thanks to injuries that decimated the running backs, receivers and defense. Jackson became somewhat overlooked.
"I think people get bored," Petrino said. "That's the world we live in now. He took everybody by storm last year by just the unbelievable performances and then he never let down. He kept coming and coming and coming. It was expected, and nobody really saw the amazing performances. The only things they saw was when he made a mistake, or when he threw an interception, not the great touchdown runs and throws that he had."
When Louisville opened 5-4, it became harder for Jackson to make another case to win the Heisman. But he did improve in big ways this season, and he put up more mind-boggling numbers, earning him another trip to New York.
Among his accomplishments, Jackson is proudest of his improvement as a passer: He stayed in the pocket more, recognized defenses better, went to his checks more reliably. As a result, Jackson posted a career-best completion percentage of 60.4 percent. He threw a career-low six interceptions.
"It just made other plays on the field easier," Jackson said. "I knew where my receivers would be all the time and stuff like that, I got the ball out in time to my receivers and we made big plays. That was the biggest thing for me this year."
In all, Jackson led the nation in total offense with 4,932 yards (3,489 passing, 1,443 rushing) and is on pace to set ACC season and career records for total yards per game. He won consecutive ACC Player of the Year honors and finished third in the Heisman race.
"If you take out his running stats, he had a great year throwing the football, the number of yards and completions and touchdowns and interception ratio. It's unbelievable," Petrino said. "Great, great year. If you take out his throwing, and just running the football, it's a great year running the ball. But the fact that he can do both of them together at the same time, nobody else has ever been able to do that, so you're seeing one of the best players ever to play college football."
If Jackson gets 26 yards rushing and 126 yards passing against Mississippi State, he will join Colin Kaepernick as the only other player in NCAA history to run for 4,000 and pass for 9,000 yards in a career.
And though it seems ridiculous on its face, it does feel as if Jackson has to make another statement in this game, not only because his bowl performance a year ago in Orlando ignited talk questioning his Heisman-winning credentials, but because the spotlight will be on him to wow college football fans one more time.
Jackson has done all this before -- his breakout performance against Texas A&M in the bowl game two years ago launched what ended up being one of the finest seasons in college football history. In spotlight games this season, Jackson did not fare as well, so this is the perfect opportunity to remind the nation why he drew everyone in.
His career also provides one of the more fascinating discussion points about what he has accomplished. Where does his career stack up to date, among all the quarterbacks who have played?
"For me it's right at the top, just simply because he's done what nobody else has been able to do throwing and running the football," Petrino said. "The only thing he lacked is a national championship, and that's something I wish we could have helped him get."
Though Petrino says he believes wholeheartedly in Jackson, where he ranks on that list is subject to debate for the very reason Petrino mentioned: Jackson's dazzling career featured zero ACC or national championship game appearances. It also featured zero 10-win seasons.
Jackson remains unconcerned about his legacy or where he stacks up. Whether this is his final game at Louisville is subject to debate, too. But if it is, there's no doubting what he has meant to the program, to the city of Louisville and to his teammates. His commitment has always been as strong as his sometimes unimaginable performances.