Lamar Jackson’s Quarterback Guru Teaches High-School English

Discussion in 'Sports' started by dealmaker, Jan 10, 2020.

  1. dealmaker


    Lamar Jackson’s Quarterback Guru Teaches High-School English
    The man behind the NFL’s best player doesn’t work for the Baltimore Ravens. He teaches teenagers about George Orwell and Huckleberry Finn
    Joshua Harris watches Lamar Jackson during Louisville's pro day in 2018. Joshua Harris

    By Andrew Beaton
    Jan. 10, 2020 8:00 am ET

    Every day, teenagers arrive at St. Thomas Aquinas High School with an odd question for Joshua Harris, an English teacher at the Fort Lauderdale, Fla. school whose students read classics like “1984” and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” in their sophomore and junior-year classes.

    “What’s it like to coach Lamar Jackson?”

    Jackson, the Ravens’ quarterback, is the prohibitive favorite to win this year’s MVP award. He led Baltimore to an NFL-best 14-2 record while leaving opposing defenses helpless and fans slack-jawed with a unique combination of passing ability and athleticism. He led the league in touchdown passes and broke the record for rushing yards by a quarterback. Now he takes the Ravens into their divisional-round playoff matchup as a heavy favorite against the Tennessee Titans.

    Jackson’s rise from the fifth quarterback taken in the 2018 draft to the most dynamic player in the league has been the story of this NFL season. But the best way to understand the NFL’s best player, who’s famously humble and has improved meteorically, is through the English teacher whose side gig is coaching the league’s next superstar.

    The weirdest thing about their relationship is that Jackson was never one of Harris’s students in high school. They didn’t even meet until Jackson was in college.

    It was before Jackson’s sophomore year at Louisville, the same year he won the Heisman Trophy, that they were connected through Jackson’s youth football coach, Van Warren. Back when Jackson was in elementary school, Warren and Felicia Jones, Jackson’s mother, began training kids at a field in Pompano Beach, Fla. More than a decade later, that local clinic led to a connection with Harris.

    Harris has worn many different hats. “I tease him all the time that he wears 100 different hats,” Warren says. Before teaching, Harris once was a lawyer and later became a youth pastor. He was also the football coach at an area private school. That was when he linked up with Warren and Jones, who asked him a surprising question. They wanted to know if he would be willing to coach Jackson.

    “It came out of nowhere,” Harris says. “They both realized maybe I could take his game further.”

    Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson is the favorite to win this season’s NFL MVP award. Photo: rich barnes/Reuters
    Jackson wasn’t a particularly heralded recruit out of high school. His game was raw, but he was lightning fast, with a powerful arm. “Everyone saw the flash,” said Lonnie Galloway, his former co-offensive coordinator at Louisville.

    He played as a freshman at Louisville, making defenders who tried to tackle him look silly while he broke off big plays with ease. It was clear that few people possessed his preternatural talents, but he completed only 54.7% of his passes that year. There was a distinct sense that he needed to fine-tune his throwing to fully blossom.

    That summer after Jackson’s freshman year, he began working with Harris. They focused on mechanical adjustments and fine-tuned his game to fit what the Louisville coaches wanted. After that, as a sophomore, Jackson became the full-time starter. His yards per attempt rose 18%, he totaled 51 combined touchdowns and he ran for 1,571 yards to earn college football’s most prestigious prize. They worked together again the next summer, and Jackson’s completion percentage rose again to 59.1%.

    Harris assigned himself a couple specific tasks when he first began tutoring Jackson. He watched all of the Jackson film he could get his hands on, dating back to high school, and he began to notice things. Jackson’s base, as he threw, had narrowed over the years. The placement of his elbow and shoulders were also inconsistent, something they worked to correct.

    But more important, Harris says he became Jackson’s “rabbit ears.” Harris kept a notepad on which he jotted down everything scouts and analysts were saying about his pupil, so that when he got together with Jackson, Harris could ask: “Do you know what they’re saying about you?”

    People were saying a lot about Jackson, and most of them regret every word. As he readied for the NFL draft, some doubted he could play in an NFL-style offense. In one now-infamous moment, Hall of Fame executive Bill Polian said Jackson should play wide receiver, not quarterback, in the pros.

    Harris considered all of this as he designed a plan for their workouts and pre-draft strategy. They decided he shouldn’t run the 40-yard-dash at the NFL combine because they wanted teams to focus on his passing ability and not his speed, which could just be another reason for executives to surmise he should play a different position. Moreover, it factored into how Harris designed Jackson’s pro day in front of decision makers. The workout stressed Jackson’s ability to take snaps from under center, instead of the shotgun as he mostly played in college, and in a somewhat unusual twist every play included several receivers instead of one, to highlight Jackson’s quick decision making.

    As that workout proceeded, Harris was nervous. He had never run a pro day before, much less one for a potential first-round pick. But afterward, someone came up to him and was impressed by the event’s atypical design. “Hey, who put this script together?” the person asked. Which is the moment Harris crossed his fingers and prayed Jackson would become a Raven.

    That person was James Urban, Baltimore’s quarterback coach, and Harris left that conversation believing the Ravens were the team with the creative vision to maximize Jackson’s abilities. Still, on draft day, they had no idea. Four quarterbacks went in the top-10 not named Lamar Jackson. Baltimore came on the clock with the 25th pick—and took a tight end. In the green room, it was getting lonelier and lonelier. With the last pick in the first round, the Eagles were on the clock, and it seemed certain he’d have to wait another day.

    Suddenly, the phone rang. Jackson answered, while those close to him, including Harris, waited anxiously. “The Baltimore Ravens,” Jackson whispered to them. They had traded up and made him the 32nd overall pick.

    Lamar Jackson, left, with Joshua Harris Photo: Joshua Harris
    As a rookie, Jackson began the season as a backup, took over when Joe Flacco got injured and kept the job when Flacco returned. Baltimore finished 10-6—including a 6-1 record with Jackson as a starter—but lost in the wild-card round of the playoffs in a game where Jackson completed less than half of his passes and was sacked seven times.

    The following off-season, three important things happened: the Ravens traded away their Super Bowl-winning quarterback, Flacco, to the Broncos; they hired Greg Roman as offensive coordinator to design an offense around Jackson’s skill-set; and Jackson returned to Florida to train with Harris.

    At one point, the Ravens suggested Jackson spend more time with a more established private coach. “I’ve got a guy,” Jackson would say. Four days a week, Jackson and Harris returned to the same field in Pompano Beach, stressing fundamentals that they believe had slipped when Jackson had suddenly been thrust in as an NFL starter. Then they’d make their eyes sore watching film.

    To Harris, it was the ultimate sign of Jackson’s humility: he became a millionaire and an NFL starter but nothing had changed. Harris tries to mirror that. People constantly ask him if he’s looking for new clientele, but when he’s not teaching at St. Thomas Aquinas or serving as an assistant for the school’s football team, he prefers to coach at Warren and Jones’s “Super 8” youth clinic. The cost: $0.

    “The only price around here is work ethic,” Harris says.