If you think defending Louisville junior quarterback Lamar Jackson is challenging, try finding someone to stand in for him at a North Carolina football practice.
Jackson, who won the Heisman trophy in December, poses as substantial a threat running the ball as he does throwing it, making him unpredictable and non-replicable. Last season, Jackson became the first player in FBS history to throw for more than 3,300 yards and run for over 1,500 in one season.
“It’s very difficult, because obviously he’s the best player in the nation, if he won Heisman,” said junior linebacker Andre Smith, who recorded an interception and 73-yard return in UNC’s loss to Cal last Saturday. “So I don’t know if we have anyone available on our roster that can move like him. … It’s hard to replicate but you’ve got to watch the highlights and know what’s coming.”
Never miss a local story.
The Tar Heels face Jackson and the Cardinals Saturday at noon in Chapel Hill.
In Louisville’s 35-28 season-opening win over Purdue this past Saturday, Jackson rushed 111 for yards and threw for 378. Cal’s entire offense totaled 123 rushing yards and 363 passing yards against the Tar Heels that same day.
There isn’t anyone like the 6-3, 211-pound Jackson in all of college football, let alone on the Tar Heel roster.
“It’s almost impossible to mirror what you’re going to face in terms of the scout team,” UNC defensive coordinator John Papuchis said.
To practice containing Jackson’s scramble, a running back could take the scout team’s snaps, but that would only address one of Jackson’s strengths. So the defense needed to prepare against a proficient passer.
Papuchis has had to train his team for the unpredictability. So for the role of imitating Jackson, Papuchis chose the 6-3, 230-pound, fourth-string freshman quarterback Logan Byrd.
“Does he have the same kind of juice and wiggle that Lamar Jackson does?” Papuchis said. “No, but who does? So at this point, I’d rather our guys know that it could be a run or a pass on any play, ‘cause that’s what they do.”
Despite his efforts, Byrd left much of what to expect up to the defender’s imagination.
“You know, Logan’s a great player, and I love him dearly,” Smith said. “But they’re totally different players. That’s like Tom Brady and Michael Vick.”
The Tar Heels are left studying highlight reels to build a strategy against an opponent they can only conceptualize. In 2016, only Florida State tallied more yards (538) against the Tar Heels than Louisville averaged against its opponents last season (532.7). (UNC beat FSU last season, 37-35.)
Papuchis said former Texas and NFL quarterback Vince Young was the closest he’s come to facing a quarterback like Jackson, who holds the ACC record in rushing yards by a quarterback (1571), passing or rushing touchdowns in a season (51) and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback (21).
“We don’t have a Lamar Jackson on our football team,” head coach Larry Fedora said. “But those guys are doing the best job they can… We’re not going to be able to provide the speed of the game that they’re going to actually see in the game, but we’ll have to make the adjustments to the speed of the game as we go.”
Rather than be intimidated, the Tar Heels are excited by the challenge. North Carolina hasn’t faced a Heisman trophy-winner since Ohio State’s Archie Griffin in 1975 — so battling a player like Jackson is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for UNC.
“He’s an elusive quarterback,” UNC junior defensive end Malik Carney said of Jackson. “He kind of reminds me a little of Michael Vick. Great footwork, real slippery I should say. I can’t wait to get out there.”