CLEMSON — The Clemson defense will try to do something Saturday night against the Louisville Cardinals that few teams have done — slow down Lamar Jackson.
Last year, in his first full season as a starting quarterback for the Cardinals, Jackson rewrote the record books for the Louisville football team — rushing for a school-best 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns while setting the ACC record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Jackson also threw for 3,543 yards and 30 touchdowns while only amassing nine interceptions.
This season he is off to a similar start — leaving the Tigers’ defensive coordinator Brent Venables very impressed and a little sick.
"Some of it's fun, then the more you see of it, the more sick you get,” Venables said. “I'll be honest, because of all of the plays that he makes even when it's not there, you're like, 'OK, that's a good call.' Then you're looking for the result and then it's plus-nine. So we're going to really have to play well and we're going to have to play strong and physical in space.
“And we're going to have to compete for balls. We're going to have to win when the ball's in the air -- play great technique, have great eyes, good fits, all of it. There's not a lot of room for error with these guys -- they'll make you pay."
Jackson has drawn similarities over the past two seasons to former Texas quarterback Vince Young.
In last Saturday’s 47-35 victory over North Carolina, Jackson became the second player in FBS history to have back-to-back games with 300 passing yards and 100 rushing yards — leaving NFL draft analyst Matt Miller to say, “Lamar Jackson is something special. Haven’t seen a playmaker like this in college since Vince Young.”
Venables understands exactly the type of player Young was, having faced him while defensive coordinator at Oklahoma. He believes the comparisons are justified.
"I really think he's really special, really unique, doesn't have the size of Vince Young, but some of the things that Vince Young was able to do -- improvise and throw it and run it,” Venables said. “Sometimes the worst thing you could do against Vince Young was cover everybody, and obviously Lamar has that in him as well. I think the schemes that they have around Lamar are really exceptional, smart -- that's no big surprise.
“It's an excellent system and they've tailored it. It's not just the spread, QB run-game stuff -- it's a ton of things. There's a pro style to it as well that is very multiple and makes them very hard to defend. He's got a great arm, tremendous natural, wiry strength that even when you've got the free-hitter, it's like a 50-50 ball for us on defense."
It is not only Jackson making the Louisville offense so challenging for opposing defenses. The Cardinals boast dynamic playmakers that make Jackson’s job of making plays that much easier.
"They've got an excellent group of receivers,” Venables said. “They're all big, really big. You'll see them in pregame. You can tell that they know what to do. He can buy time and he finds them.”
The combination of a veteran offensive line that returns all five starters from a year ago, dynamic wide receivers and arguably the most electric player in college football means that not only will the Tigers’ defense have its hands full Saturday night , so will Venables.
"I've got to do well every bit as much as the players in preparing them and showing them certain looks and making the right types of adjustments,” Venables said. “You reference the things that were good, and the things that weren't good -- in particular -- that's what I try to address because I know they're going to keep that in the game plan.
“So you've got to go back and see who they are right now and then kind of go backwards from there. We're going to need to have that kind of success to avoid a shootout. It was a shootout last year and we still got after him."