Maybe that’s why the junior quarterback entered the season overshadowed by the likes of USC’s Sam Darnold and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield in the discussion of possible winners this year.
But don’t expect a slump from Jackson in 2017.
Despite his team faltering down the stretch last season — Louisville lost its final three games after starting 9-1 — Jackson’s overall body of work was simply ridiculous.
His 1,571 rushing yards (six yards per attempt) were 668 more than the Cardinals’ second-leading rusher, and Jackson accounted for 21 touchdowns on the ground. He is the best example of why offensive masterminds prefer to have a quarterback who can run. When you do, it’s truly 11 on 11.
But even if his running prowess is taken out of the equation, Jackson still had a near 3-1 touchdown to interception ratio and threw for 3,543 yards.
In Louisville’s unexpectedly nervy 35-28 victory against Purdue, Jackson saved the day and covered up his team’s mishaps by completing 30 of 46 passes for 378 yards and two touchdowns. And he rushed for 107 more yards.
What were some of his team's hiccups? Well…
Louisville’s offensive line had 10 false starts last week
Coaching 101: Two simple keys to winning are not beating yourself and winning the battle in the trenches.
Well, Louisville did the opposite against Purdue, and still managed to win, as the Cardinals had double-digit false start penalties.
That the Cardinals were able to overcame that speaks to their talent level, as well as the fact Louisville is a team with real flaws.
Louisville head coach Bobby Petrino told The Courier-Journal’s Jeff Greer that those mistakes are correctable, and he said redshirt first-year center Robbie Bell is still working on his communication with Jackson.
The Cardinals will most likely not repeat their error-riddled performance up front against UNC. But perhaps the Tar Heels can exploit a position group that clearly has not gelled yet.
In general, Louisville’s offensive line has struggled to protect its valuable quarterback. Part of the unit's troubles stem from the fact that Jackson frequently puts himself in vulnerable positions. Either way, the Cardinals still allowed an average of 3.62 sacks a game in 2016 — which ranked 124 out of 128 teams nationally.
Cornerback Jaire Alexander is banged up
Coaching staffs at UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest are probably all wondering how they let Alexander attend school out of North Carolina.
Eschewed by his nearby ACC programs, Alexander picked Louisville and has blossomed into one of the league’s top defensive backs and a valuable punt returner.
Unfortunately for Alexander, his special teams ambitions led to him suffering an injury in the second quarter last week when he returned a blocked field goal. He did not return to the game, and Louisville has not announced his status for Saturday.
Alexander's absence would undoubtedly prove to be a relief for the Tar Heels, who are still trying to develop their passing game.
Cardinals still working on running game
Louisville has experienced a fair amount of attrition at the skill positions offensively, namely at wide receiver. But the Cardinals are also replacing running back Brandon Radcliff, who had 903 rushing yards and six touchdowns a year ago.
Against Purdue, Reggie Bonnafon, a converted quarterback, and Jeremy Smith combined for just 41 yards on 11 carries. Smith also fumbled deep in red-zone territory. Jackson clearly can work magic with his feet, but the Tar Heels might be able to hone in on him a bit more if the Cardinals’ running backs don’t prove to be too much of a threat.
Any offense with Jackson in charge will probably enjoy its fair share of big plays.
A year ago, Louisville ranked seventh in SB Nation writer Bill Connelly’s IsoPPP ranking, a metric that measures offensive explosiveness by tracking points per play on successful plays.
Against Purdue, the Cardinals had 17 "chunk" plays — passing plays of 15-plus yards and rushing plays of 10-plus yards. They're probably expecting to exploit a UNC defense that struggled to tackle in the open field against California.
The Tar Heels will have to keep tabs on big-play wide receivers Jaylen Smith and Dez Fitzpatrick, who combined for 12 catches and 212 receiving yards last week. Of course, in the end, reducing big plays starts with containing Jackson.