A Lamar Jackson Heisman would cap memorable 2016 in South Florida

Lamar Jackson could have signed with the Florida Gators, who wanted him badly, but didn’t.

He could have been made to wait and learn behind a group of veteran quarterbacks at Louisville, but wouldn’t.

Tonight, unless stopped by a voting result that tops all the other surprises in this story, Jackson will become the first Palm Beach County athlete to win the Heisman Trophy.

The former Boynton Beach High School star was on the outer fringes of most summertime watch lists for the college game’s highest individual award, if he was mentioned at all. His sophomore season at Louisville has been so spectacular, however, that many voters have looked at no one else since the end of September.

By then Jackson had 13 touchdowns passing and 12 touchdowns rushing, including five scores in a 63-20 romp over Florida State, which at the time was ranked No. 2 in the country.

Suddenly, just a month into the season, we started bracing for another giant headline to cap off what has been an unforgettable year in South Florida sports.

From the glory of former Suncoast High runner Tony McQuay winning a relay gold medal at the Rio Olympics, to the promise of Adam Gase taking over the Dolphins and Mark Richt signing on with the Hurricanes, to the tragedy of Jose Fernandez’s death, 2016 has just been one major jolt after another.

It follows, then, that Heisman lightning would strike right here, and pretty much out of the clear blue.

Jackson has only played in 24 college games, and not always as the starter. As a matter of fact, Louisville coach Bobby Petrino was reluctant to commit to him early in 2015, Jackson’s true freshman season, saying “We’ve been able to see the talent and the excitement that Lamar brings with his ability to run and throw the ball, but he is very young, and it’s a different game between high school and college.”

That’s back when the interceptions were coming too frequently. Jackson constantly improvised, as he did at Boynton Beach, coming to the line of scrimmage with a particular play in mind but instantly tossing it whenever conditions weren’t perfect for a big gain and launching into whatever felt right at the moment. Exciting when it works. Unreliable, though, as a game plan, regardless of a particular athlete’s overwhelming skills.

The Cardinals opened the 2015 season with consecutive losses to Auburn, Houston and Clemson, a very tough lineup. A rally followed for a regular-season record of 7-5, still well off the national radar, but then, in a Music City Bowl win over Texas A&M of the SEC, Jackson put up numbers that no one could ignore, entering his name for future awards of every size.

Passing for 227 yards against the Aggies and running for 226, Jackson became the only quarterback ever to top 200 in both categories other than Johnny Manziel, a Heisman winner, and Vince Young, a Heisman runner-up.

Of course, fans of the Boynton Beach Tigers had seen similar explosions. In one 63-58 win over Coconut Creek near the end of Jackson’s senior season, he accounted for seven touchdowns, including two in the game’s final two minutes. Kid stuff for a guy with his speed and open-field moves and fastball delivery. It always had been that way, from Jackson’s pee-wee league days with the Pompano Beach Cowboys.

The video-game numbers aren’t supposed to keep coming against top college competition, however. This year Jackson has made himself the first player in Div. I history to rush for 1,500 yards and pass for 3,300 yards in a single year. His touchdown numbers, 30 passing and 21 rushing, stack up pretty well against anyone who has ever played, too.

Tim Tebow, for instance, accounted for 55 total touchdowns in his 2007 Heisman Trophy season and Cam Newton, another Heisman-winning quarterback, totaled 50 in 2010. Jackson has 51 with a Citrus Bowl game against LSU still to be played.

Of course, there have been some disappointments along the way. The 9-3 Cardinals are coming off consecutive losses to Houston and Kentucky and have dropped from No. 3 in the late-September Associated Press poll to No. 13 in the final College Football Playoff rankings. That finish, which featured uncharacteristic mistakes by Jackson, is the only reason the Heisman voting remains in any doubt at all.

Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson is believed to be Jackson’s biggest threat tonight, according to national polls, as if anyone trusts in polls anymore. Clemson is in the national semifinals, too, which counts for a lot, and the Tigers beat Jackson and Louisville head-to-head, which counts for a lot more.

In that 42-36 shootout on Oct. 1 both quarterbacks shined brightly. Jackson was the game’s leading rusher with 162 yards and two touchdowns. Accounted for 457 yards in total offense, too. Watson won the day with five touchdown passes, though, and he’s also a 2015 Heisman finalist, so we’ll still have to wait and see.

My expectation is that Jackson gets the trophy, but if that’s wrong, what’s to say he doesn’t do it all over again in 2017? So many great Palm Beach County high school players have come close in the past and so many magical stars weren’t considered for the Heisman at all.

With the talent pool and the tradition we’ve always had here, it’s got to happen sometime. And if the folks in Broward County want to claim him because Jackson lived there until high school, so be it. There’s plenty of homegrown spectacle to go around.

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