Daily Focus: How far can Lamar Jackson take Louisville?
Every week day in “Daily Focus,” Pro Football Focus looks at the top college football storylines and explains what they mean from a PFF perspective.
Can Lamar Jackson make Louisville a contender in the ACC? As expected, the majority of the attention at Friday’s ACC Media Days went to Clemson and Florida State, two teams who have each recently played for a national title (and in the Seminoles’ case, won) and are again projected to rank among the country’s best teams this year.
But the wild card in the ACC Atlantic division could be the Louisville Cardinals, and head coach Bobby Petrino made the point Friday that the team’s goal was to win a national title.
That’s certainly an ambitious goal, but just how far away are the Cardinals from being a true ACC championship contender? A lot of their success could depend upon quarterback Lamar Jackson. When we ranked top 10 breakout QB candidates for 2016, we left Jackson off the list – which was painful for us, given how electric he was as a runner last season, producing many highlight reel-worthy runs and producing the highest yards per carry average (8.1) among QBs with at least 100 carries. He was a weapon on designed runs, particularly in the red zone, and outstanding on scrambles.
The problem is Jackson ranked tied with Penn State’s Christian Hackenberg as the No. 130 QB (out of 157 qualifying QBs) in passing grade. As colleague John Breitenbach details here, Jackson has the raw tools to develop into a good college passer, and he was pretty good when asked to throw the deep ball last year. The biggest area of improvement, however, is his performance when under pressure. All quarterbacks see a drop-off performance when facing pressure, but Jackson’s was much worse than most, with his QB rating dropping from 98.7 to 46.5, his yards per attempt average dropping from 8.4 to 5.4 and his completion rate dropping from 64 to 36 percent.
Jackson was under pressure a lot last season, the fourth-highest rate in the nation at 43.3 percent. This was both a product of Jackson holding onto the ball too long and an offensive line that graded as one of the worst pass-blocking units in the country, so the Cardinals’ pass protection has to be a priority area of improvement this year.
The good news for Jackson, however, is that the Cardinals have a defense that should be able to keep them in a lot of games. We ranked their defensive line as one of the top 10 returning units in the ACC, in large part because of the presence of nose tackle DeAngelo Brown, who ranks No. 8 among returning DTs in PFF grades, and edge rusher Devonte Fields, who defended the run well and led all 3-4 OLBs with 49 total pressures and 13 sacks as a pass-rusher. There are a lot of productive players returning at the second and third levels of the Cards’ defense, as well.
So, in short, Jackson has a long way to go as a passer before Louisville can be considered a true threat to unseat the Tigers or Seminoles atop their division. But if he is able to make that leap, there are enough pieces on defense to make the ACC title race very interesting.
What Treon Harris’ move to wide receiver means for Florida: Gators head coach Jim McElwain confirmed that Harris, who started at quarterback last season following the suspension and subsequent transfer of Will Grier, will move to wide receiver this season.
This shouldn’t cause much of an impact at the quarterback position, given that Harris wasn’t expected to legitimately compete for the starting job (the favorite seems to be redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio entering fall camp) a year after ranking 126th out of 157 qualifying quarterbacks in passing grade last season.
But while it remains to be seen what he’s capable of as a receiver, it’s worth noting that the Gators have just one returning wideout who earned a positive grade a year ago (Antonio Callaway), and Harris was quite effective as a runner in space a season ago, particularly as a scrambler. He forced a total of 22 missed tackles on his 69 rush attempts, which is a very high rate. If nothing else, he’s worth a shot at receiver in an offense that will need some playmakers to step up this season.