There is one obvious question about Louisville football this spring, and it is the one question that is sure to be asked more than any other between now and the season opener against Alabama in September: What does life look like without Lamar Jackson?
While it is true that any team with a departing Heisman Trophy winner gets asked the same question, it feels a little different with the Cardinals. Perhaps that is because Jackson is a generational talent who succeeded in areas most quarterbacks cannot -- from his devastating speed to his second-level burst to his ability to throw 80 yards without wasting a sliver of effort.
Jackson made the Louisville offense look different because he was different -- the first player in school history to win a Heisman, and the only player in recent history to draw comparisons to Michael Vick. Now that Jackson is gone, it stands to reason that Louisville will recalibrate itself on offense and look, well, different.
Cardinals coach Bobby Petrino does not want to give a whole lot away, especially with such an important opener looming. But what he will say is that he has a starter going into the spring, and he does not hesitate at that: Former ESPN 300 prospect Jawon Pass has been groomed for this moment over the past two seasons, serving as Jackson’s backup while learning every part of the Louisville offense.
“He’s been here for two years now and he’s done a really good job,” Petrino said in a recent phone interview. “He understands the offense. He’s very intelligent. He’s always a guy who was paying attention and ready to get in and play; and every time he got in, he did a really good job. He’s had a really good offseason in our strength and conditioning program. He’s gotten stronger and slimmer, and I anticipate him having a real good year for us.”
At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Pass is much bigger and more physical than Jackson, two of the most obvious differences between the two.
Jackson relied heavily on his speed and quickness, often opting to run first. Jackson ended up rushing for over 1,500 yards in each of the past two seasons -- numbers that no quarterback under Petrino had previously posted.
Pass does have running ability, but it would be a shock if he ran for as many yards as Jackson did.
“You never anticipate that much,” Petrino said about Jackson’s 4,132 career yards rushing. “I think that was just a real unique and special player. That was something he did better than anyone else in the country, so you want to utilize his abilities.
“The offense will change because we’ll mold it around Jawon’s strengths and what he does best, his ability to throw, his ability to run. He could line up and execute right now the same things that Lamar did. He’s not going to make all those cuts, but he certainly can run.”
Where Jackson was a mostly overlooked three-star prospect on the recruiting trail, Pass came into Louisville in the class of 2016 as one of the most highly touted quarterbacks in the country. Nicknamed “Puma” as a child, Pass became an ESPN 300 prospect and chose Louisville over Auburn thanks, in part, to his older brother, Khane, a safety on the Cards.
During open practices, it was easy to see why Pass earned scholarship offers from elite programs across the country. Not only is he a physically imposing presence -- he drew comparisons to Cam Newton in high school because of his size -- his arm strength left observers marveling.
Game experience helped too. In five games last season, Pass completed 69.7 percent of his passes. Though he played in mop-up duty in those contests, the completion percentage, in particular, impressed the coaching staff.
But being the starter is obviously different than learning behind the Heisman Trophy winner. The pressure intensifies, and so does the scrutiny.
“Jawon needs to be himself, do what he needs to do well, and again, he’s a guy that’s played quarterback his whole life,” Petrino said. “He’s played at a real high level in high school, so he needs to be himself; and what we need to do is mold the offense around him and what he does best. We’ll be different than what it was with Lamar because they’re two different guys. I always feel like it’s our job as coaches to install everything, put it all in and then make sure that we mold it to the quarterback.”
Petrino believes Louisville will have its best offensive line since he returned to the school in 2014, so that also should be beneficial for Pass. The Cards return two of their top three receivers in Jaylen Smith and Seth Dawkins. But without question, the running back position remains a wild card, especially since Petrino wants his backs to get more carries.
So there remains plenty to do this spring. But it seems certain that Pass is the player Petrino wants to entrust his offense to headed into the 2018 campaign. We won’t find out how it really looks until kickoff Sept. 1.