The picture in the ACC for 2016 is an interesting one, even with heavyweights Florida State and Clemson likely to dominate the conference, as usual.
New coaches Justin Fuente and Dino Babers should bring some extra punch to Virginia Tech and Syracuse, respectively. There's a chance Mark Richt brings Miami back from the abyss, and there are teams like Pitt that could potentially break through to the league's upper tier.
In the midst of that maelstrom of emerging narratives, Louisville is returning one of the most exciting offensive players in the country at quarterback next year. True sophomore Lamar Jackson is just the most recent example of a somehow underrated South Florida athlete whom Louisville plucked out of the Sunshine State.
Jackson slowly won over the starting job in Louisville over the course of last year and finished with the following stat line:
Jackson took 25 sacks and had a higher interception rate (one per every 31 passes) than you want from your starting QB, but he was reasonably effective in the passing game for a true freshman and totally dominant in the run, and not just in his national breakout bowl game against Texas A&M.
Michael Vick had three games of at least 100 yards passing and rushing in his collegiate career. Lamar Jackson has five this year.— SB✯Nation CFB (@SBNationCFB) December 31, 2015
Indeed, Jackson in the option game was the foundation for most all of the Cardinals' offensive success in 2015.
Now they'll look to build on that success in 2016.
Jackson could give Louisville an elite running game.
Louisville doesn't do the zone-read run like every other shotgun spread team. On a macro level, that's because head coach Bobby Petrino isn't a shotgun spread kind of guy. And on a micro level it's because offensive line coach Chris Klenakis comes from the "pistol" offensive tradition popularized by former Nevada head coach Chris Ault.
The Nevada pistol offense included a lot of big personnel formations and was based on the run. On another hand, for many schools, the zone-read is just a way to ensure a simple but quality rushing attack can be paired with the spread passing game.
The emphasis on using multiple tight ends made the pistol a good match for the Petrino offense, which was already heavy on pro-style formations and a physical run game.
So Louisville runs a zone-read from a pistol, and it works well with a brilliant athlete like Jackson running the show.
When a runner like Jackson is attacking the edge with lead blockers heading for the second level, it only takes a few things to go right for phenomenal results to occur.
Jackson has a next-level ability to make darting cuts while moving at a high speed. His acceleration from a quick plant makes it easy for him to hit any creases that open up in a defense.
The play here is a simple zone-read, but with a "bluff" arc block by the backside H-back and an additional lead block by the play-side H-back:
The double-tight end and double-running back pistol formations were really effective for Louisville both in getting Jackson some escorts on the perimeter and allowing the Cards to change up who they were attacking once they got there.
For instance, teams typically like to play the zone-read these days by having their athletic defensive ends step inside when unblocked but keep their shoulders square to the line of scrimmage. That allows them to deny the running back the cutback while staying positioned to prevent the QB from winning a soft edge. Mastering that technique takes some discipline and some athleticism. Ends make mistakes trying to execute it all the time.
With its bigger sets, though, Louisville could force linebackers to have to make those plays rather than ends. When those linebackers weren't solid on their fundamentals, Louisville was able to destroy them.
As you see here, Texas A&M linebacker Richard Moore (No. 7) was out of his element securing the edge as the target of an option read. Louisville targeted a lot of different guys in this game while running its basic zone-read play from different formations, and Jackson had 22 carries for 226 yards and two touchdowns. If not for Aggie free safety Armani Watts, who makes the tackle here, it would have been 300-plus yards for Jackson.
Jackson, clearly, has incredible speed. As a dual-threat prospect in the 2015 class, he was quick enough that schools like Florida State recruited him as a defensive back. He landed as a QB, though, and it's worked out.
Jackson's pistol runs are now a key part of the Louisville arsenal, which already included a strong dose of two-back lead runs from under center that could be used to set up Jackson for rollouts and other perimeter running opportunities.
If Jackson can master the Petrino passing system, watch out.
Jackson's execution of the Petrino passing game as a true freshman was far from perfect. Flaws in his game included inconsistent footwork, an occasionally glacier-like progression through reads and a lack of awareness of the blitz.
In 2015, Jackson wasn't killing opponents with the Petrino shallow cross concept or other pro-style reads, but he did do some damage throwing the ball, and he has a lot of skills to build on.
One strategy that worked quite well in his freshman year was for the Cardinals to scheme up easy reads for him with their spread formations, particularly concepts with deep routes, which Jackson can hit with an effortless flick of the wrist:
All he's doing is reading the boundary flat defender on a "smash read," while Louisville is running the scheme from a trips boundary set with the tight end running a seam route to hold the safety.
It wasn't an accident that this formation got lead receiver James Quick matched up on struggling Florida State nickelback Tyler Hunter. Louisville targeted Hunter repeatedly throughout the game, often with empty formations with trips receivers loaded up into the boundary to stress Florida State's assignment discipline.
The questions moving forward will be how comfortable Petrino can get Jackson making drop-back reads and how many concepts he can conquer. It wouldn't be ridiculous for the Cardinals to focus on play-action and bootleg plays from their bigger sets, which are pretty easy on a QB, especially one as athletic as Jackson.
They also could feel free to throw the ball primarily from spread passing sets that can simplify reads for Jackson and allow him to get the ball out quickly (such as on that deep route against Florida State) or perhaps tuck it and run. Because he's such a dominant runner, Jackson will always be at an advantage in the passing game, too.
Jackson is only a true sophomore this season. That means he's still likely to be a bit raw, but there's huge upside here, and he should be able to make strides that put huge pressure on Louisville opponents.
In the ACC, the plot thickens.