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How Lamar Jackson went from 3-star recruit to Louisville Heisman winner

In his Heisman season, the Louisville sophomore surprised lots of us, but not the people who knew him back when.

Heisman Trust-USA TODAY Sports

Watch Lamar Jackson drop 13 touchdowns on his poor opponents over his first 60 minutes of 2016 and then keep running all the way to a Heisman Trophy, and it’s hard to imagine how anyone ever could’ve missed him.

But Jackson’s recruitment, which ended with him signing with Louisville in February 2015, got a late start. He wasn’t a regular at high-profile camps, which have become spotlights for players as young as freshmen. College teams didn’t notice him until midway through his junior year at Boynton Beach Community High School in Florida, after he transferred from another high school.

His recruitment didn't end quietly. He drew plenty of interest from top programs, even if he was only rated a high-three-star prospect on the consensus-generated 247Sports Composite.

"I think that’s the only reason that he wasn’t recruited any higher," his high school coach, Rick Swain, said in September. "If he’d have had much more attention, I don’t think I could’ve handled the mail. I mean, jeez. He wound up getting recruited by everybody, but not early."

Some schools didn’t like Jackson as a quarterback.

Florida State was interested in him there, but also liked him in the defensive backfield. Others were skeptical that Jackson, whose athletic gifts are practically beyond parallel, could throw enough to stick.

"I was surprised more schools didn't buy in," Charles Fishbein -- president of Elite Scouting Services, which evaluates players for college clients -- said in September. "One SEC school, whose offense was a perfect fit and is now struggling with QB play, didn't think he could play for them."

At Boynton Beach, this was bothersome.

"He was at times forced to move around and improv a lot of his plays – at times – and it might have hurt him on the recruiting trail, because they didn’t really get to see him as much as they probably would’ve liked, sitting back throwing the ball," said Boynton Beach athletic director Evan Caruso, who took that job before Jackson’s senior year.

"But he’s beyond accurate and is very knowledgeable with Xs and Os. I think that’s something they kind of dropped the ball on."

Jackson’s completion percentages hovered in the 40s and 50s in high school, but his throwing skills were obvious. He could flick a ball a mile down the field with a motion that mimicked a second basemen casually throwing to first.

Lamar Jackson

"It was kind of uncanny," Swain said.

Jackson’s recruitment picked up once his people put together an updated highlight tape. It featured his throws first, his runs second.

"That’s when everyone said, ‘Oh golly, who is this kid?’" Swain remembers.

"I recall Lamar was so adamant about playing quarterback, and the schools that did well with him weren't even suggesting a possible position change," Fishbein said.

Still, Jackson needed to find the exact right spot.

Years earlier, now-former Louisville receivers coach Lamar Thomas played high school football for Swain at Buchholz in Gainesville. Thomas, who was moving with head coach Bobby Petrino from Western Kentucky to Louisville, got a call from Swain.

"I told him, ‘I’ve got something special here that you need to take a look at,’" Swain said.

Thomas became Jackson’s lead recruiter. And he landed him, holding off heavy interest from Florida, Nebraska and a host of others.

"My biggest thing was that I wanted Lamar to make his own choice," said Swain. "But at the same time, I wanted him to go somewhere that I felt like he would have somebody that would have his back. And Lamar Thomas provided that."

Running QBs were never a hallmark of Petrino’s systems, even when he ran the pistol at Arkansas between 2008 and 2011.

"We know Bobby Petrino," said Bill Tome, an area youth football director who first came across Jackson when the QB was 11. "No offense [to Petrino], but he likes a drop-back quarterback."

Something changed with Jackson, and it worked.

Jackson ran 163 times for 960 yards and 11 touchdowns in his true freshman season, numbers that dwarf what previous Petrino quarterbacks have done on the ground. Many of those yards came on designed runs, as Petrino crafted a QB-running niche for Jackson within his classic power spread while Jackson learned the passing game. His star turn came against Texas A&M in last year's Music City Bowl, when he threw for 227 yards and ran for 226.

"I felt like that any coaching staff that looked at his high school film would know they had to take advantage of that," Swain said. "It didn’t matter where he went."

This year, Petrino leaned even more heavily on Jackson’s legs. Jackson took 33 percent of Louisville’s carries last year, more than starting running back Brandon Radcliff. In the 2016 regular season, Jackson took 48 percent of Louisville’s runs and got 50 percent of the Cards' yards, too.

"In the past [year], I've become a student of the game, hitting the books hard," Jackson said at the ACC's summer media day, before his magic carpet ride of a season started. "Coach been on me a lot. Standing on top of my throws. He's been on top of me about that, too. Trying to become a dynamic quarterback."

Jackson averaged 8.9 yards per pass attempt (12th in the country) and 6.6 yards per rush (41st and fifth among QBs), making him the most comprehensive dual threat in the sport right now. The only thing about Jackson's stats that wasn't great was that he took 38 sacks, although an astonishing 11 came in one game, a loss at Houston.

"Petrino is a great QB coach," Fishbein said. "I remember people laughing at the notion of him playing in Petrino's system, but Petrino has really changed things around to play to Jackson's strengths as he develops as a passer."

Petrino relied on Jackson to be his engine as a passer and runner. Jackson made it pay off.

For Jackson’s high school supporters, his year was awesome.

"I’ll be honest with you. It’s not surprising, because I know what his athletic ability is and his upside is," Swain said.

"We saw it ahead of time, and we’re happy that it’s playing out the way it is," Caruso said.

But all of this? It's hard to predict that.

"I’ll tell you the truth. Not the Heisman, yet," Tome said. "But I will tell you, just like every coach here and anybody that knows him, they expected great things. It was just a matter of knowing the plays, and he picked that up."

lamar jackson hurdles dudes

When Jackson was 11, Tome was the Boynton Beach police athletic director, responsible for overseeing youth programs run through the department. Tome’s team of 11-year-olds took on Jackson’s North West Broward Raiders in what they called the Super Bowl. Jackson ran for two touchdowns in a 12-6 win.

"He literally beat us by himself," Tome said.

Years later, Tome walked up to Jackson to chat, not realizing their acquaintance.

"I said, ‘Nice to meet you, heard good things about you.’ And he said, ‘Well, I know you.’ I said, ‘You don’t know me.’ He said, ‘Yeah, you were the director of the police athletic league when I beat your team in the Super Bowl, the Boynton Beach Bulldogs.’

"And I still didn’t believe it," Tome said. So, he called the team’s coach. Jackson was right.

"He always kind of had that little swag to him," Caruso said. "We noticed it his junior year, when he [transferred] over. He was pretty special from the beginning."

In Jackson’s junior year, Boynton Beach lost a state playoff game against Miami Central, which featured future FSU running back Dalvin Cook. Central blew out nearly everybody that year and was amid a four-year state title run, but Jackson’s Tigers scored 37 points and gave them a challenge.

"Their coach said, ‘I know who that quarterback is. I remember that kid from little league.’" Swain recalls. "But he said, ‘My goodness, he’s the best player we’ve seen.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, he’s pretty good.’

"And he said, ‘By the way, coach, that’s the most points anybody’s put on us in three years.’"

In South Florida, Jackson created conflicts with his greatness.

In that breakout game in September, Louisville hosted Florida State with College GameDay in the house. Cook, it turned out, would not be the Heisman winner on the field that day. Louisville's 63-20 win solidified Jackson the clear Heisman favorite, just three weeks into the three-star recruit’s sophomore season. He stayed in pole position all the way through.

Tome has served for decades in Florida. Both of his kids graduated from Florida State. But he said this a couple days before kickoff back in September:

"One hand is FSU, and the other hand’s Lamar Jackson," he said.

"And I will never go against Lamar Jackson."