Louisville QB Lamar Jackson takes over with natural talent

Louisville freshman quarterback Lamar Jackson, who once beat Rajon Rondo in a foot race, has passed for 598 yards and rushed for another 435. Lance King/Getty Images

Louisville had no plans to sign a quarterback in the class of 2015. Not with so many already on the roster.

Then, coach Bobby Petrino flicked on tape featuring four-star recruit Lamar Jackson, unlike any quarterback he had on his roster: fast, dynamic, elusive and with a strong arm to match. Petrino decided to ignore his own recruiting philosophy and go after him. Jackson, he believed, could be a game changer.

In the months that followed, Jackson committed to Louisville, had a superstar senior season, gave the coaches angina when he nearly flipped to Florida, arrived on campus, beat Rajon Rondo in a foot race (!), debuted at No. 4 on the depth chart, earned playing time in the opener against Auburn, started three games, set a single-game school record and piled up three 100-yard rushing games.

Just this week, Florida State defensive end DeMarcus Walker described Jackson as faster than Marcus Mariota. Pile it on to the budding Jackson legend, one that has grown from grainy Instagram videos to slick highlight runs.

"Lamar," offensive coordinator Garrick McGee said, "is one of the best athletes anyone has ever had. Natural talent is what he brings to the table that's different from most people in the country."

Jackson had a bushel of offers out of Boynton Beach (Fla.) High, but he committed to Louisville in August his senior year. That did not stop him from listening to new Florida coach Jim McElwain, who put the hard sell on as soon as he arrived in December. Jackson took visits to Florida and Mississippi State late in the process, leading to some nerve-wracking moments for Petrino.

Ultimately, Jackson stuck to his commitment for one key reason: He knew he would have a chance to compete for the starting job, even though the Cards returned three quarterbacks with starting experience.

"When I went to Florida and Mississippi State, I knew I'd have to sit out and I knew they weren't going to give me the opportunity to start but when I came here, the coaches were being real about the situation and being honest with me, so I felt the connection," Jackson said.

When he arrived, Jackson was not intimidated. The other quarterbacks embraced him, saying, "Just learn the offense and get better each week, and coach will give you the opportunity to play."

His first full practice was … exhausting. Not only were the Cardinals going fast tempo, Jackson had to do things in the huddle he never had to do in high school. McGee turned to him and said, "You didn't know it was going to be like this, did you?"

Jackson shook his head.

"When you walk in the door in June and you don't understand how to call a play in the huddle because your whole life has been no huddle and you're just learning the terminology, how to call the formation first, then the motion, then the protection, then the route concept, then the cadence, just that consistency of calling plays, it takes time," McGee said.

Even though Louisville returned experienced quarterbacks, McGee said there was never any intention of redshirting Jackson. With each practice, Jackson got better, and gave the Cards the ability to have a much different look offensively. When they lined up for the very first play against Auburn in the season opener, Jackson and Reggie Bonnafon were in the backfield.

Jackson threw the ball, which was promptly intercepted. But he showed flashes in that game, especially with his running ability in the second half. McGee said it was not practice that told the staff Jackson could function at a high level; it was watching him in games that ultimately won him the starting job.

"We felt like the Auburn game, we needed to put him on the field because they played a lot of man coverage, and it's hard to play man coverage with a running quarterback," McGee said. "We needed to put him out there early and see what he could do. We had four possessions in the second half and scored three touchdowns and a field goal against what we thought was a talented SEC defense. Maybe he gives us the best chance."

Jackson ranks third among quarterbacks nationally with 435 yards rushing. Though he has four interceptions to three touchdown passes, he had zero turnovers the last time out, a much-needed 20-13 win over NC State.

Since then, the Cards have had a bye week to prepare for Florida State on Saturday. One of the top items on the agenda: accuracy.

"I know I've got to keep progressing on throwing because all teams are looking for is me to run," Jackson said. "So I've got to show them I can throw it and hopefully win games with my arm instead of my legs sometimes."

He's already shown he can throw it. How about this 95-yard toss?

Good thing Petrino changed his mind.