NEW YORK -- Louisville came ready to promote quarterback Lamar Jackson at ACC media day in July, with a slew of notepads emblazoned with his name and picture placed right next to the school's football guide.
The move was bold and rarer still considering Jackson was about to begin his true sophomore season and had seven career starts. But coach Bobby Petrino felt so strongly about his young quarterback that he gave the go-ahead to begin promoting Jackson.
Among the 28 players gathered, Jackson was the only sophomore. But he never betrayed his age. He smiled but said little, a player known more for his highlights than his sound bites. Still, it is hard to imagine that anybody in Louisville could have envisioned what was about to unfold.
Week 1. Charlotte. Jackson scored on a 36-yard touchdown run on the opening drive. Then he delivered another score and another. Eight touchdowns -- including six passing -- and 405 total yards later, one name resonated across the country: Lamar Jackson.
After that game, Jackson tried to exit the stadium but couldn't because fans swarmed him for autographs. A Louisville official noticed and told those assembled that Jackson needed to get going for treatment, whisking him away.
He asked Jackson how long he'd been standing there signing. "Twenty minutes," Jackson said. He would have kept on signing had nobody intervened, but Louisville realized after one week that it had a phenomenon on its hands.
His legend only grew after an otherworldly performance against Syracuse, in which he had 610 yards and five touchdowns and his signature Heisman moment: the Lamar Leap that has been immortalized by a photo of him in midair with his legs outstretched.
At the following home game against Florida State, Jackson made the Seminoles look woefully unprepared for his skills in the run game. He again piled up the yards and touchdowns. His 47-yard run through the middle of the Florida State defense ended with a spin off two defenders at the goal line for his last score of the game.
It was an almost incomprehensible site: an under-the-radar prospect from Florida making four- and five-star defenders -- many from his home state -- look completely and totally lost.
Knowing a throng of fans would be waiting for Jackson after the game, Louisville officials had him jump into a car. One fan with two helmets begged for Jackson to sign them. Jackson politely declined. When the car started to pull away, the man put one helmet on, carried the other in his arms and ran after the car, screaming for it to stop. Louisville decided in early October that autographs would be off-limits.
Jackson remained nonplussed as the hype started to build. More people started to recognize him on campus, at the mall and in restaurants. He politely smiled but quickly learned it would be best to stay in his room and play video games in the few free moments he had.
He didn't turn on the television to watch his own highlights or hear what analysts thought about him.
"I tried not to pay attention to it, just tried to go out there and win games," Jackson said. "If you fall off, anything can happen. Just got to keep grinding."
There is a reason for that. Jackson grew up with a mom who emphasized character, humbleness, work ethic and drive. He didn't go to parties growing up; he rarely went out anywhere unless his mom approved.
She wanted him to stay focused on living up to the potential she saw in him from an early age. They worked out six days a week, often multiple times a day. He would complain often; she did not care. She coached him and trained him, and she raised him, alternating roles with ease. When anybody asks Jackson how he reached this point, the only answer he gives is: "my mom."
As Jackson dominated each opponent he faced, the question became: How best to stop him? One reporter asked Syracuse coach Dino Babers a few weeks after the teams played, and he responded with blunt honesty: "Based off of our performance, I don't have the right to give an opinion on that."
Florida State could not stop him, either, and neither could Clemson. Although the Cardinals lost to the Tigers, Jackson cemented his name atop Heisman lists with his 457-yard, three-touchdown performance against the reigning ACC champions.
Duke coach David Cutcliffe laid out the perfect game plan in late October, deciding it would be best to limit Jackson's possessions. The plan nearly worked. Duke was the first team to hold Jackson to fewer than three touchdowns, but afterward, Cutcliffe could not stop raving about the quarterback he had just seen. He wondered aloud, "How'd he get out of Florida?"
Simple, really. Jackson emerged on the high school scene late, after transferring to Boynton Beach High. Then-coach Rick Swain called up a former player of his, then-Louisville assistant Lamar Thomas, and told him he needed to see Jackson. Thomas was sold. He went to Petrino. But Petrino didn't think he needed another quarterback on his roster.
Thomas tried again, deciding his best course of action was to convince Petrino that Jackson was a passer -- not just a running quarterback. Thomas had Swain rearrange Jackson's high school tape to start with the passing highlights. Petrino was finally convinced, and he sold Jackson and his mom on the opportunity to play right away under a coach noted for his ability to develop quarterbacks.
And so the under-the-radar Jackson went off to Louisville, determined to play and start as a true freshman. He did, though he did not fully assert himself as the quarterback of the future until the end of the 2015-16 season. His three-touchdown performance in a comeback win over Kentucky showed that he was ready to take charge. After that game, Petrino sat Jackson down and explained what he needed to do to prepare for the upcoming bowl game against Texas A&M.
They had four weeks. That meant studying as much tape as he could. That meant taking detailed notes about what he saw. That meant evaluating his own tape, breaking down all the good plays and all the bad plays. That meant working more on his mechanics during practice, starting with his footwork.
Jackson, in a never-ending quest for perfection, listened and learned. He dedicated himself to that bowl game, and when he took the field against the Aggies, he was virtually unrecognizable. Jackson ran here, and he threw the ball over there, a sudden conundrum for the A&M defense that it never quite solved.
When the game ended, Jackson had set Music City Bowl records for rushing (226 yards) and total offense (453), and he had his name linked with Vince Young and Johnny Manziel as the only quarterbacks to go for 200 yards passing and 200 yards rushing in a bowl game.
Those who watched the game keenly understood that Jackson was on the verge of a season few had ever seen. In the Louisville spring game, he threw for 519 yards, and expectations for him and the team started growing. Now you see why Louisville decided to promote Jackson so hard, even with 2015 Heisman finalist Deshaun Watson returning to the ACC.
The season did not unfold perfectly for Jackson, though. With a No. 5 ranking and outside hopes for the College Football Playoff, Louisville traveled to play Houston in mid-November. The team and Jackson had their worst performances of the season. The Louisville offensive line could do nothing to slow Houston, and Jackson had nowhere to go. He ended with season lows in rushing (33) and total yards (244) and tied a season low for touchdowns (1).
The collective thought going into the Kentucky game the next week was that Jackson and the Cards would make up for their poor performance against a rival they had recently dominated. But Kentucky stayed with Louisville every step of the way. Jackson had more than 400 yards but fumbled late in the game deep in Kentucky territory. Louisville lost, and Jackson's Heisman lead didn't seem as certain.
But ultimately, his complete body of work prevailed: An ACC-record 51 total touchdowns; the only player in FBS history with 30 passing touchdowns and 20 rushing touchdowns in the regular season; the only player in FBS history to go over 3,300 yards passing and 1,500 yards rushing in a season.
As one ACC head coach mused recently, "He's the best in the country. And it's not even close."