Photo courtesy Louisville Sports Information
The North Carolina Tar Heels are well aware of the threat posed by Lamar Jackson when the Louisville Cardinals visit Kenan Stadium on Saturday. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has rightly drawn comparisons to some elite signal-callers.
“I would say the closest similarity would be Vince Young, just in his overall ability to throw and run,” said Tar Heel defensive coordinator John Papuchis. “Super athletic, physical, tough, good runner, good thrower . . . I guess that would be the best comparison.”
“I’ve never played somebody as elusive as Lamar, but when I watch film and I think of somebody, the only person I can think of is Michael Vick,” said defensive end Malik Carney. “His footwork, his playing style reminds me of Michael Vick. He’s real slippery, real quick, so we’ve just got to contain him. That’s all I can really say about that.”
“I don’t know,” said Cole Holcomb, when asked to name a quarterback similar to Jackson that he’d played against. “I feel like DeAndre Francois was a pretty good quarterback.” With all due respect to Francois –sadly injured in Florida State’s opener and out for the year– Carolina has not recently played a quarterback whose dual-threat ability approaches Jackson. Perhaps if one were to ask a Tar Heel opponent from 2015, they might say Marquise Williams?
In any case, if the Tar Heels haven’t played a Jackson-type in recent years, they certainly don’t have one on their roster. And so the scout team has had to do the best they can in simulating Jackson’s abilities. “We don’t have a Lamar Jackson on our football team,” Larry Fedora said Wednesday. “But they are doing the best job they can, giving the best look they can.”
“It’s almost impossible to mirror what you’re going to face in terms of the scout team, but I think with every challenge, there’s two ways to look at it,” Papuchis said. “And the way we obviously are choosing to look at it is, it’s a great opportunity for us to go out and play our best.”
The challenge in simulating Jackson is that a team can’t just put a runner in the scout backfield, because as talented as Jackson is with his feet, he can be a pin-point passer. And it can’t just be a pocket passer, because Jackson’s read-and-run abilities are second to none in college football. So you do the best you can. “We’ve got to get the best of both worlds, so to be honest with you, we’re using (reserve quarterback) Logan Byrd as a guy that replicates it.”
Given the limitations, and understanding that even with their own dual-threat abilities, a team is not going to allow its first or second-string quarterbacks to run scout team, Byrd is a credible option to simulate Jackson. Though the redshirt freshman has not had a live snap in college, he has his dual-threat bonafides. He threw for nearly 4,000 yards in his career at Veterans High School and rushed for nearly 1,800. As a senior, he ran for 930 yard and 15 touchdowns. “Does he have the same kind of juice and wiggle that Lamar Jackson does? No, but who does?” said Papuchis. “So at this point, I’d rather our guys know that it could be a run or a pass on any play, because that’s what they do.”
Though he’s surrounded by talented teammates, the Louisville offense runs through Jackson as much or more than any other quarteback in college football. “They had, I think, 78 snaps the other day (against Purdue), and he threw it or ran it on 67 of them,” Papuchis said. “So it’s OK that he’s the focal point (of the defense), because that’s what they do.”
It’s not just scramble and run; Jackson’s feet allow him to buy time for his receivers. So if a secondary gets lazy in coverage, he’ll find an opening to throw. If linebackers allow room in the middle of the field and defensive linemen get eaten up by blockers, he’ll tuck and go. And it’s not just as though scheme will beat Jackson; his ability to read the defense and make quick decisions mean that defenders can be where they’re supposed to be and still get beaten. “He’s got that kind of ability. He’s pretty special,” Fedora said. “It looks like a lot of it is just ‘ability reads.’ If he feels like he’s got more ability than the guy he’s reading, he’ll take it and go.”
This is the task ahead of the Tar Heels on Saturday. Last weekend, a lack of pressure up front allowed Cal’s Ross Bowers to make his throws and beat the Tar Heels with catastrophic plays. That will happen again if the defense doesn’t maintain composure, stay in their gaps and trust one another. “If you try to do too much, if you try to help somebody else out, that’s where he’ll burn you,” Fedora said. “So they’ve got to really just be disciplined and do their job. If they take care of their job and the guy next to him takes care of his job, then we’ll get the job done.”
Holcomb said the Tar Heels got a little nervous in game one last weekend, and the defense didn’t communicate well, leading to big gains for the Cal Bears. Communication and ‘staying home,’ sticking to one’s assignment, have to be a point of emphasis on Saturday. “Everybody’s got a job,” Holcomb said. “Everybody’s got to be able to make sure we’ve got a guy for the read, for the keep, for the cut-back.”
And that means staying patient in plays that could be extended with Jackson’s feet. While Holcomb expects longer plays, the confident Carney doesn’t. “I expect my guys to be getting to him,” he said. “I expect nothing less. We’re going to get to him. We’re going to get him on the ground. We’re going three and out. That’s what I’m expecting.”
It’s a daunting task ahead, certainly, but the Tar Heels are saying the right things after last week’s disappointment. Believe in yourself to do your job, believe in your teammates to do theirs, stay disciplined, and wrap up.