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Louisville’s putting Lamar Jackson under center. What are the pros and cons?

The Heisman winner’s role is evolving, and the key will be in the details.

North Carolina State v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Point: Ian

One of the big 2017 stories coming out of the ACC is Bobby Petrino’s intention to put Lamar Jackson under center more. There’s a lot of reason to be hesitant, not the least of which is the fact that Jackson won the Heisman, threw for 3,543 yards, and ran for 1,571 while playing mostly out of shotgun or pistol alignments.

Instead of wondering how Louisville could build on that, now we have to wonder if it can maintain it while replacing multiple starters in the WR and OL units and integrating a different philosophy.

The end of last season left a stain on Jackson’s Heisman year and showed obvious areas for improvement, including Louisville’s horrendous pass protection, which Houston and LSU torched for a combined 19 sacks.

Louisville v Houston Photo by Thomas B. Shea/Getty Images

If you remove the sack yardage from those games, you find Jackson was actually still effective at running from the ‘gun. He ran 18 times for 97 yards against LSU and 14 times for 116 against the Cougars. The problems revolved around protecting him.

Now Petrino wants to get him under center more often, which will remove the most devastating component of the offense while putting more on a young line’s plate. It’s hard to understand how this will either make Jackson more effective or shore up the OL.

But what do you think, Bud?

Counterpoint: Bud

I agree that it is hard to see Louisville being as dynamic if it is running Jackson less. And if that were the only goal, I think it would have been a mistake. But it’s not.

Petrino wants to develop Jackson as a passer to help his stock at the next level. Both he and the QB have discussed this:

"Because it will make him better," Louisville coach Bobby Petrino says without a hint of hesitation.

And it will get him ready for the NFL.

"[Petrino] wants to make me NFL ready, a better player," Jackson says. "I want to make our team better. We're on the same page."

I know stats show the NFL has been trending toward the shotgun, but being able to take a snap from under center and having comfort dropping back and throwing in rhythm still matter.

If Jackson gets to the draft as an undeveloped passer, he’s going to be picked apart by NFL teams, whether it’s in a QB-heavy 2017 class or in 2018, and his stock will plummet. That would be bad for Jackson, bad for Petrino, and, in the longer term, bad for Louisville’s recruiting.

Louisville probably doesn’t have a Deshaun Watson coming behind Jackson, like Clemson did after Tajh Boyd failed the draft process, falling to the sixth round after putting up prolific numbers at Clemson. Had Watson not come along, Clemson’s offense could have well been negatively recruited against as a gimmick, one that produces big college numbers but doesn’t prepare players. It’s important for Louisville, Petrino, and Jackson that the NFL regards Jackson as a legitimate prospect, especially because he does not have size concerns at a lean 6’3, 206.

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl - LSU v Louisville Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Running Jackson less could also reduce the number of hits on him. And not having to make reads on every play could keep him fresher late and should help keep running backs more engaged, since they’ll be getting the ball more:

"It's going to be a balancing act of not making him make a decision every single play," Petrino says. "We need to find time where he can relax and hand the ball off and let the offensive line and running backs work. But we can't take away what he does best."

On another note, Petrino’s playbooks have always included work from under center. I don’t believe it will be a huge adjustment for the coach.

Could this be a big help for Jackson, while being a relatively minor detriment to the team?

Response: Ian

The recruiting angle is tricky to navigate.

I don’t think a competitive school has to have a reputation for producing successful NFL QBs in order to recruit well and contend for championships. The model of a college-style offense with running QBs and winning that way is established; no one seems too worried about whether Urban Meyer’s lack of QB proteges in the NFL is going to hurt Ohio State in recruiting.

But Petrino’s preferred style is not this spread-option attack he molded around Jackson, but a more pro-style system that involves dropback passing. That kind of offense does need to be able to sell a future as an NFL signal caller to QB recruits. Does Petrino want to avoid getting too far away from his base offense so that when Lamar is gone, the Cardinals can stay on track? That would make sense.

It’s hard for me to buy that this will do much to help either Jackson or the 2017 Cardinals, though. It’s a risk for Jackson, who could potentially convince some NFL scouts that he’s not suited to running an NFL-style offense, whereas if they continued to run the same offense, he might continue to be brilliant and look like a shiny, blank canvas for pro teams.

There’s also the concern of milking as much value from Jackson’s eligibility as possible. An ACC title would probably do more for Louisville than Jackson being drafted highly.

Florida State v Louisville Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

I also wonder if there’s a compromise in incorporating more dropback elements while remaining in the shotgun, so opponents still have to worry about the option game. Is it essential to recruiting that Lamar take snaps from under center? What are the benefits of that formation, as opposed to adding NFL-friendly elements to the shotgun?

Response: Bud

I think we agree that this is not that big of a deal, so long as Louisville doesn’t overhaul its entire offense. And that won’t happen.

Louisville expert Mark Ennis, of Card Chronicle agrees with you, by the way, with respect to the NFL stock impact.

“It might help his stock some,” Ennis said. “But what will really help is if he stands in the pocket, gets to his third read instead of scrambling, and throws a catchable ball on throws that require touch.”