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Matt Baker: Why Lamar Jackson got my Heisman Trophy vote

Louisville’s Lamar Jackson, Saturday night’s Heisman winner, leaps over FSU’s Matthew Thomas during a rout in September.
Published Dec. 11, 2016

One of the most impressive highlights from the most outstanding player in the country happened right in front of me.

And I missed it.

Louisville was already up 49-10 on Florida State in Week 3, so I was either writing my story or researching the biggest losses in Seminole history when the crowd began to roar. Cardinals quarterback Lamar Jackson was doing it again.

He sped through one opening, then cut so quickly that an FSU defensive back could only tackle air as he fell. Jackson muscled through another defender and spun into the end zone — the fifth touchdown he accounted for against a team I expected to compete for a national championship.

Jackson tailed off in November, but his opening nine games were impressive enough to earn the top spot on my Heisman Trophy ballot.

Jackson produced a highlight reel that rivals Michael Vick's, and his numbers backed it up. Only three players in the country rushed for more touchdowns (21) than the sophomore from Pompano Beach. Only 10 passed for more (30). He ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards per attempt, passer rating and rushing yards per game.

The lone pause came with Jackson's performance in the final three games — six total touchdowns, three interceptions and a 1-2 record. But he only deserves some of the blame.

Louisville let Houston sack him 11 times, and Jackson posted more than 450 yards of offense in the loss to Kentucky. The Heisman is supposed to honor the most outstanding player in the country, not the top player on a championship team, so I was able to look past those defeats.

Plus, there wasn't a clear option to challenge him.

I seriously considered eight other candidates for the other two spots on my ballot: Florida State running back Dalvin Cook, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen, Washington quarterback Jake Browning, Michigan linebacker Jabrill Peppers, Texas running back D'onta Foreman and the Oklahoma duo of quarterback Baker Mayfield and receiver Dede Westbrook.

All are talented — and flawed.

Mayfield might have the most impressive statistic of all; his passer rating (197.76) is on pace to break the NCAA record. But I had to pick between Mayfield and his best target, Westbrook, who always seems to be wide open.

When Westbrook was playing hurt the first three games, Mayfield completed 65 percent of his passes. After Westbrook became fully healthy, Mayfield's completion percentage jumped to 74 percent. Westbrook made Mayfield better, and that's why he took the No. 2 spot on my ballot, ahead of third-place Cook.

Cook averaged almost 50 fewer rushing yards per game than Foreman and didn't have the same production on the ground, even after accounting for the Big 12's weaker run defenses. But Cook's explosiveness and versatility (two 100-yard receiving games) gave him the edge.

Cook was one of the only players to live up to the hype in what seemed like the year of the running back. I fully expected him to be in the Heisman mix when I went to Louisville in September.

I just didn't expect him to be outdone by the quarterback on the other sideline, the one who was passing and slicing his way through the Seminoles and into college football history.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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