Never before has a reigning Heisman Trophy winner played a game inside Kenan Stadium.
That will change this Saturday, however, when the Tar Heels host quarterback Lamar Jackson and the No. 17 Louisville Cardinals in Chapel Hill.
Heading into last week’s season-opening loss against Cal, the main narrative surrounding the Tar Heels was that the defense would have to step up and carry an offense with a plethora of new starters—and without a defined starting quarterback.
UNC performed as expected offensively, but the Golden Bears used a wide variety of explosive plays to take big chunks of yardage against the defense.
It was far from the performance head coach Larry Fedora was looking for on that side of the ball—especially with a visit from Jackson, perhaps the most explosive college quarterback since Michael Vick, fast approaching.
“I mean, the guy is the reigning Heisman Trophy winner,” Fedora said at his weekly press conference on Monday. “He was the best football player in college last year. He can beat you with his arm and with his legs.
“The scheme that they run with him takes advantage of all of his skill-set,” the coach continued. “You’re gonna have to be really sound in all of your rush lanes. You’re gonna have to be in control, because if you give him a lane and people are covered—he’s gonna beat you.”
It’s nearly impossible to find a highlight video showing last season’s top college football plays without seeing Jackson all over it.
His breakout moment came during Louisville’s upset victory over then No. 2 Florida State early in the season.
Ahead by 39 points in the fourth quarter, Jackson faked a handoff at the 50-yard-line, then took off on a dead sprint down the center of the field for an effortless touchdown—spinning off a would-be tackler at the goal line.
He would go on to set the ACC record with 51 combined touchdowns rushing and passing, while also breaking the conference marks for rushing yards (1,571) and touchdowns (21) by a quarterback.
His blazing speed makes him a threat to go the distance any time he finds even just the slightest opening, which is why Fedora—like most coaches—hopes to neutralize that threat with some creative game planning on defense.
“You gotta try and squeeze the lanes and keep him in [the pocket],” Fedora said. “You gotta contain him. You can’t get too far up the field, and you have to be very controlled in those rush lanes.
“When you have a quarterback that’s not as mobile, you can turn it loose a little more,” he added. “When you have a guy that can break your back with his legs, you’ve gotta be much more controlled.”
All week in practice, UNC defensive coordinator John Papuchis has had the challenge of trying to replicate Jackson with the Tar Heel scout team.
He briefly considered using a skill position player in order to simulate Jackson’s speed and acceleration, before deciding to use redshirt freshman quarterback Logan Byrd.
Although Byrd doesn’t have the most mobility in the world, Papuchis reasoned that at least he plays the same position, and possesses a strong arm like Jackson.
“Does he have the same kind of juice and wiggle that Lamar Jackson does?” Papuchis asked reporters about Byrd after practice on Wednesday. “No. But who does?
“At this point, I’d rather our guys know that it could be a run or a pass on any play,” he added. “Because that’s what they do.”
With Jackson already off to a hot start in 2017—putting up 485 total yards in a win over Purdue last week—UNC should expect him to come out firing on all cylinders.
Although the key to pulling off an upset seems simple on paper—finding a way to stop just one player—the reality is that task is something much easier said than done.
Not only will the Tar Heels need to find a way to score the ball themselves, they’ll also have to stop one of the most special talents to come around in a long time.
Cover Photo via Associated Press