Fifteen months ago, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson began his college career in the least award-worthy way possible.
On the first play of the Cardinals’ 2015 season opener, against Auburn, Jackson lined up as a running back for a trick play. The quarterback split out in motion, and Jackson took the snap instead, rolling to his right and underthrowing a double-covered receiver. The pass was corralled by an Auburn defensive back.
Jackson had thrown his first interception — on his first play.
On Saturday, before becoming the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy, Jackson recalled that moment. Acknowledging that he had been nervous he would throw an interception, he said that as he walked off the field, he could not wait for Coach Bobby Petrino to call his number again.
“Coach got to put me back out there,” Jackson recalled thinking. “I know I’m going to do something now because I got it out of the way.”
Petrino did stick with Jackson, and Jackson did more than just something: He became the youngest player to win the Heisman Trophy, given to the most outstanding player in college football.
Jackson, a sensational sophomore from Pompano Beach, Fla., received 2,144 total points and 526 first-place votes, beating out the junior Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who had 1,524 points and 269 first-place votes. Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, a redshirt junior, finished third, followed by his top receiver, the redshirt senior Dede Westbrook. Jabrill Peppers, Michigan’s do-everything junior linebacker, finished fifth.
At 19 years 337 days, Jackson was five days younger than quarterback Jameis Winston was when he won the Heisman in 2013.
For much of the season, Jackson was viewed as the Heisman favorite, bolstered by a breakout performance against Florida State, Winston’s former team, on Sept. 17. Jackson accounted for five touchdowns and 362 total yards in a 63-20 upset of the Seminoles, who were ranked second at the time.
Jackson extended a trend of Heisman successes for versatile quarterbacks, joining Marcus Mariota, Johnny Manziel, Robert Griffin III, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow among winners in the last 10 years. In 12 games, Jackson passed for 3,390 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,538 yards and 21 touchdowns.
Only two other Football Bowl Subdivision players have thrown for 30 touchdowns and run for 20 touchdowns in one season: Newton, at Auburn in 2010, and Tebow, at Florida in 2007.
Petrino, speaking after the ceremony in Manhattan, said: “We knew how well he could run the football, and he did a tremendous job of running it, but I think because he could throw the ball and because people had to defend the pass, that it opened up his ability to run also. The improvement that he’s made since he came to our program is because of his dedication and his hard work and his drive.”
Jackson’s first pass had long been an afterthought by the time he embarked on a record-breaking sophomore year. No other F.B.S. player has thrown for 3,300 yards and rushed for 1,500 in a season. Against Syracuse on Sept. 9, Jackson became the first F.B.S. player to throw for more than 400 yards and rush for 175 in a game.
Although Jackson’s performance dipped toward the end of the regular season as Louisville finished 9-3, his early performances were enough to catapult him to a convincing Heisman win. He had almost twice as many first-place votes as Watson, the player Peppers said he would have voted for.
“The reason I gave Deshaun a slight edge — one was because a head-to-head matchup win, you got to take that into account,” Peppers said, referring to Clemson’s 42-36 win over Louisville on Oct. 1. “He finished the season strong. His team is in the playoffs.”
Watson had finished third in last season’s Heisman voting. In leading the Tigers to the College Football Playoff this year, he threw for 3,914 yards and 37 touchdowns, better passing numbers than those of Jackson, who, like Watson, played in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
But Jackson was the one who walked away with college football’s most prized honor.
Earlier Saturday, Jackson talked about how his mother, Felicia Jones, had practiced tackling drills with him when he was small. After the Auburn game last year, she was there to critique her son once again.
Of course she mentioned the interception, Jackson said.
“I already knew what she was going to say,” he said. “So I was like, ‘What about the good things I did?’ She was like, ‘You did all right.’”
An earlier version of this story misstated Lamar Jackson’s winning margin. He had 2,144 total points, not votes.