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Pocket presence makes Lamar Jackson obvious choice at QB for Louisville

There was no question in Bobby Petrino’s mind that Lamar Jackson would see action in Louisville’s opener against Auburn, but it was the energy the true freshman quarterback generated among his teammates that assured him a spot as the Cardinals’ Week 2 starter.

“I felt like Lamar really gave us a spark,” Petrino said. “The guys on the sideline in the second half, it was really encouraging to see. They felt like we were in the game and would find a way to win.”

Louisville didn’t win, but after a fall camp in which four quarterbacks jockeyed for position on the depth chart, the game might have at least provided some answers at that crucial position.

While Reggie Bonnafon moved the ball well on his first few drives, costly mistakes proved his undoing. He took sacks on three of his 16 dropbacks and fumbled a handoff that Auburn returned for a touchdown.

“A couple sacks Reggie took, he could’ve thrown the ball away,” Petrino said. “Guys were covered, and he held the ball too long.”

That’s been a common refrain for Bonnafon, who has a sack rate of 15.8 percent since the start of last season — nearly triple the Power 5 average.

Jackson, on the other hand, showed a proficiency for staying in the pocket when he had to, but running when the option presented itself.

“He had great instincts within the pocket, would sit in there and throw it but when he saw holes, he’d take off and run,” Petrino said. “He has great instincts as a quarterback.”

It’s not to say that the QB situation can’t change again. Bonnafon still appeared to be the more refined passer and last year’s starter, Will Gardner, returned to practice this week after dealing with a rib injury, meaning he could be in the mix for snaps, too. But Petrino said he sees Jackson as his starter for the foreseeable future, and his athleticism and instincts are a big reason why.

The Cardinals offensive line allowed pressure on its quarterback on 42.2 percent of its dropbacks against Auburn, the worst rate of any Power 5 school in Week 1. Bonnafon paid the price for that, but Jackson thrived in the moment.

“We felt going in we’d face a very good defensive front and we felt like we needed to have some movement at the quarterback position,” Petrino said. “Lamar’s ability to run and make plays with his legs in the second half not only opened up other things for us offensively, but tired out their defensive front a little bit.”

Indeed, Auburn’s pressure subsided a bit in the second half, but the more noteworthy difference was sacks. Auburn had four in the first half and none in the second.

That’s the big takeaway from a tough Week 1 loss, but now the challenge is getting the freshman ready for the long season ahead. Petrino said there will be parts of the playbook Jackson is better equipped to execute, and with some tough games ahead, the freshman QB needs to mature quickly. But when it comes to the weapons at his disposal, Petrino thinks he’s found his man.