After an offseason loaded with more unanswerable questions than any other in recent memory, Louisville football fans got their first two major answers of 2015 last Saturday from inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The first wasn't the one they wanted to hear. Despite appearing to be of Auburn's caliber for the duration of the 4 quarter game, a handful of those correctible mistakes that plague young teams at the beginning of seasons kept UofL from pulling the upset of the 6th-ranked Tigers.
The second answer, though, that's the one that still has Cardinal fans buzzing about the potential of both the next three months and the next three years.
Lamar Jackson, the forgotten man in the oft-discussed battle to be Louisville's starting quarterback in 2015, will now head into his second college game with a stranglehold on the job. That's what happens when you become the first Cardinal freshman to rush for more than 100 yards in your first game, and when you nearly lead your team out of a 24-0 hole to stun the preseason favorites in the Southeastern Conference.
Jackson was dazzling in front of both the 79,000 fans inside the Georgia Dome and the even larger national television audience watching on CBS. He treated the Auburn defense like the high school defenders seen by so many on his viral YouTube and Vine highlight videos. When the dust settled and the shimmying, shaking and, yes, throwing, all ended, Jackson had left Louisville fans feeling optimistic about both the rest of the season and the future of the most important position on a football team.
The answer to the biggest question of the summer has spawned some new ones. Can Jackson do this in a non-desperation situation where he had the freedom to improvise? Can he throw well enough to thrive in a standard Bobby Petrino offense or will Petrino have to mold the offense to his strengths? Can a quarterback who likes to run that much stay healthy for an entire season of major college football?
The follow-up answers will come soon enough, but for now, the initial response has successfully sparked the enthusiasm of both Jackson's supporters off and on the field.
"Lamar is the most exciting quarterback in college football right now," said freshman wide receiver Jaylen Smith, who is Jackson's roommate. "He has an incredible arm. He can probably throw a ball 85 yards. His throws are very accurate and they have high velocity. It gets there very fast."
How Jackson reacts to the added weight of having all week to prepare for a game as a starter will be discovered in five days as Petrino announced publicly on Monday that the freshman would be under center for the first play against Houston.
So how did we get to this point where a freshman many believed would play another position at the college level has already beaten out Reggie Bonnafon, Kyle Bolin and Will Gardner -- three players who all helped the Cardinals win big games last fall? My first indication that this was at least possible came three months ago.
In May, before the freshmen and other newcomers had arrived on campus, Bobby Petrino came into our ESPN Louisville studio for an interview on the Ramsey & Rutherford program that I co-host. The topic of the quarterback battle came up, and when Petrino was asked about Jackson he was almost dismissive. He said that the freshman was a great athlete but that they'd have to see if they could work on his release and figure out whether or not he could grasp the offense and command the respect of his peers.
Fast forward a month and Petrino is back in studio and he's asked the same question. If we had been playing poker I would have folded out of turn because the man did a terrible job disguising the fact that he was pretty sure he'd drawn a winning hand.
"Lamar's going to be a factor," Petrino said with a slight smile. "He's picking things up faster than we thought, and honestly he's throwing the ball better than we thought. We might not have a choice but to play him right away."
Against Auburn, Jackson showed the rest of the world what he showed Petrino during the summer, and on Saturday he'll have his first chance to show a home crowd. His first chance of many.
A version of this column appears in the current issue of The Voice-Tribune