Clemson University sophomore cornerback Trayvon Mullen did not play a snap against Louisville last season. Nevertheless, he is quite familiar with the Cardinals' quarterback, reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson.
Mullen and Jackson are first cousins. They grew up together in southern Florida, but they were always on opposite sides of the ball.
“We always played against each other our whole life. We’ve never played on the same team,” Mullen said. “I know what he does, what type of player he is. How he is now is how he was before.”
Mullen referred to Jackson’s dazzling agility and dynamic speed. Jackson captivates spectators as he petrifies defenders. He stresses defensive backs with his accurate arm, but also with his legs.
Not simply by making them look silly as he shuffles out of their futile attempts to tackle him in space. Jackson also forces corners and safeties to work overtime in coverage.
With the grace and flair of a bullfighter, Jackson can sidestep pressure, extend plays and stretch the pocket from sideline to sideline.
Then deliver a dart downfield.
“You’re never going to take away his creativity,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “You’re in great position, but you’ve still got to make the tackle.
“He’s going to use his gift. He’s able now to create. Now you’ve got to cover really good players a long time, or you get anxious and you come out of coverage, and he can throw on the run as good as anybody.”
Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables said Jackson exemplifies the same mystifying skills as former Texas quarterback Vince Young, whom Venables faced during his tenure at Oklahoma.
"Sometimes the worst thing you could do against Vince Young was cover everybody. Obviously, Lamar has that in him as well," Venables said. "He's got a great arm. Tremendous natural wiry strength. Even when you've got a free hitter, it's like a 50-50 ball for us on defense."
Venables cited the well-timed cornerback blitz North Carolina dialed against Jackson last week. The defender bolted off the line and braced for a free hit on Jackson.
The play resulted in a 75-yard touchdown pass.
"The corner just bounces off of him, and he throws a strike for 75 yards" Venables said. "Those are the kind of things a special player can do. It's one thing to take what's there. He can make something out of nothing, all day.
Mullen said Clemson simulated elongated scrambles during preseason camp. Defensive backs are conditioned to stick with their assignment beyond the initial route. Louisville's collection of receivers work patiently in concert with Jackson as he scrambles. Simple post routes can morph into marathons.
“We’ve got to stay disciplined, because he exposes a lot of people,” Mullen said. “If you’re in man coverage, that’s your man, and there’s no time to come off your man until the play is over with. Zone is running zone. You just play it how it’s supposed to be played out.”
Mullen said he and Jackson talk every day but seldom about football. He expects to exchange pleasantries prior to the game, but after the kickoff, Mullen will ensure that his cousin does not make him look silly.
"I'm looking forward to it," Mullen said. "I'll make jokes about the game, like, 'Man, you ain't fixing to shake me. I will not let you hurdle me.'"
Manie Robinson, The Greenville News