Early during his NFL scouting combine session with reporters, Louisville QB Lamar Jackson — perhaps the most fascinating prospect in the 2018 NFL draft — dropped the name of the quarterback coach he was working.
But it wasn’t a recognizable name, not one from inside of the industry-stamped blue blood QB mentors that have created a cottage industry for training the bulk of the star quarterback prospects every year.
Many reporters then moved quickly onto other topics with Jackson. After all, there were other topics that trumped it for a polarizing player: one who refused to run a 40-yard dash, was being talked about as a wide receiver, and who hired his mother to be his de facto agent. This was a fascinating player with a story you don’t see every draft cycle.
But Jackson has made sure to mention the name Joshua Harris more than once in his very limited engagements with reporters since then, and it begged the question: Who exactly was Harris and what was he teaching Jackson during the run-up to the draft?
We spoke the other day with Harris, who like Jackson (and his mother, who almost never has spoken on the record) has kept a low public profile. All they’ve done by remaining hush is add to the mystique around Jackson as a first-round possibility come Thursday night.
Like you, Harris has heard the criticisms of Jackson — both for football reasons and otherwise — and he just finds the whole process leading up to the draft so curious, including about those doing the talking.
“One of the things I’ve noticed about the quarterback position is that nobody’s played it, but everyone thinks they know it’s supposed to be played,” Harris told PFW. “I think it’s different than any other position in football. I never hear people breaking down the swim technique for a defensive end when they’re at the [water cooler].
“But you say quarterback, and everyone has an opinion. Did you play it? Did you study it?”
Harris comes clean: He didn’t play it. Harris says he was a defensive end who walked on at Tennessee State in the early 2000s, and he’s gone from chasing quarterbacks as a player to hunting down every bit of knowledge he can for how to help build a better one. A former lawyer-turned-pastor and QB coach, Harris also wants to dispel a preconceived notion about that profession — but also explain how it helped him to get into the business.
“I know a lot of people see on TV lawyers in the courtroom, but really you’re just doing a bunch of research,” Harris said. “I researched like crazy. And then I started implementing things, and it worked.”
He had been coaching youth football up through the high-school level, and Harris just wanted to know more about how best to coach the position. So he started by studying everything under the sun about QB mechanics and how best to implement and teach them.
What Harris felt he learned was that there are multiple ways to teach how to play quarterback.
“I think it was good that I was an outsider, that I didn’t play the position,” he said. “You know how they say that the star player doesn’t make a good coach because he doesn’t know how he does it?
“As an outsider I’ve found that there are many ways to do this quarterbacking thing. There are some key components, but there are different ways to do things. There’s a little bit of artistry in the position.”
So if the other highly touted quarterbacks in this class — Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Rosen, you know all the names by now — are your oils and acrylics, brilliant and striking in their own rights, perhaps Jackson is a watercolor. Not universally beloved. Often misunderstood. Delicate and complex. Tough to work with properly but capable of luminous beauty.
Jackson and Harris first hooked up through a few Florida football connections via Jackson’s mother, Felicia Jones, and his youth coach, Van "Peanut" Warren, right when Jackson was going off to Louisville. Jones helped Warren start his own training academy, Warren’s Elite Training, after he helped Jackson develop as a young player starting at the age of 8.
Warren’s program was based on a “Super 8” foundation — Jackson’s uniform number, same as the age he started playing football after the death of his father — based on these eight core principles: God, prayer, faith, family, education, sacrifice, character, discipline.
From afar, watching Jackson start cutting it loose early on at Louisville as a raw runaround quarterback, Harris was struck at the talent Jackson had for the position but also by the areas in which there was significant room to improve and grow. Jackson earned the starting QB role as a freshman and was far more effective a runner than a passer, but even his throwing prowess offered enough hope that something special was in development.
“You saw the flashes,” Harris said of Jackson’s freshman season in 2015 in which he completed 54.7 percent of his passes, had a 12-8 TD-INT ratio and averaged 7.0 yards per attempt. “You saw something that only God could give you, talent-wise.
"But you saw a lot of inconsistency. And so then my question became, why is it inconsistent? Is it him? Is it ignorance? Is he not willing? Or is it the system that he’s in?
“My tracking on it over the next three years was just watching it from afar to see him and if he’s getting better every year at the finer aspects of the game.”
So Jackson and Harris would reconvene in the summertime back in Florida to work on his game, with Harris saying he made sure to be respectful of not overstepping his position. He found out exactly what the Louisville staff wanted to teach Jackson in terms of mechanics and together they workshopped it all out under the hot Florida sun after his freshman year.
The next fall, Jackson embarked in a brilliant 2016 season, becoming the youngest to win the Heisman Trophy — three weeks short of his 20th birthday. That season as a sophomore Jackson threw for 3,390 yards (56.2 percent completions) with 30 touchdowns and nine interceptions and rushed for 1,538 yards (6.0 average) with 21 TDs. The work paid off.
Jackson backed that up in 2017 with more passing yards (3,660), a higher completion percentage (59.1), more rushing yards (1,601) and a higher yards per rush (6.9), finishing third in the Heisman. The minute Jackson declared for the 2018 NFL draft, he and Jackson went back to work — but with a different focus this time.
The Louisville coaches, including head coach Bobby Petrino, had taught Jackson to stand in the pocket a certain way — a way that has earned a little criticism in draft circles and from NFL teams. Jackson’s “narrow base,” something we pointed out in PFW's draft profile of him, was actually learned behavior while in school, it turns out.
“Mechanically, this has become a huge talking point — his base,” Harris said. “We want to widen that out to give him more balance. So we’ve been working on that a lot.
“Again, he did what his coaches asked of him at school. If you go back and watch his high-school film, he had a wider base. Go back and watch his Boynton High tape, his base was different. Everyone was talking about his narrow base, but that was what was asked of him.”
Another tweak, and one that Harris noticed while watching Jackson in his final college game: his elbow location. From Jackson’s first pass attempt in the 31-27 loss in the TaxSlayer Bowl to Mississippi State, his ball was sailing on him. At least five (if not more) of Jackson’s passes were overthrown that day, and it led to a dreadful passing line (13-of-31 for 171 yards with two TDs and four interceptions) that dropped his season completion percentage below 60 while the Cardinals let a fourth-quarter advantage slip away.
Harris was in the stands that day, and he came over to console his student after the game but also to offer him a teaching point in the moment.
“I told him after the game, ‘Your ball is sailing.’ He’s had a problem with the ball sailing at times. That’s the inconsistency with the elbow placement. The elbow goes low, the ball is going to go high. It’s going to sail on you,” Harris said.
Since then, Harris and Jackson have talked and worked together “every single day,” Harris said. They’ve ridden the highs and lows of the silly season, hearing anonymous quotes and even former general managers (such as Hall of Famer Bill Polian, who suggested a move to receiver for Jackson to take advantage of his blinding speed) poke holes in Jackson’s unique and polarizing skill set.
Their solution? Keep their heads down, grind together and make the most of their teaching sessions, what little time they have left together as student and pupil before an NFL team takes over those duties and likely wedges Harris out of the equation.
Jackson has kept his media exposure to a minimum, Jones — despite acting as her son’s agent — has continued staying almost completely mute in public, and Harris said he’s deflected most requests to talk on the record.
Even when Jackson was busy visiting teams (and yes, Harris said Jackson has made himself quite available to teams, despite what has been reported about the QB being tough to reach for visits), they found time to talk shop.
“Every day we talk football every day — white board, playbook, you name it,” Harris said. “If I am out of town, or if he’s out of town, we have been talking or [using] FaceTime to go over stuff. I am throwing out a coverage, saying, ‘Hey what play would you run against this? What about this situation, down and distance?’
“I have had NFL playbooks sent to me. I am doing the same things everybody else is doing. We are breaking them down, going over the protection schemes. We work every day. We talk every day.”
This is where Jackson and Harris share a bond: They’ve both been criticized for their pre-draft approach, even if Jackson’s trial has been far more public and visible. No one frankly had heard Harris’ name in NFL circles prior to Jackson stepping to the combine podium, and that part is fine with Harris. He’s not in this, he said, for fame or to build and brand or a business. Harris just hates that talk has surfaced that Jackson has been unavailable or that he’s not putting in the time necessary to get better prior to the draft.
“One of the things I hated that was coming out — maybe it’s because I am a no-name — was that [people said Jackson] wasn’t preparing or working,” Harris said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. We were working every day. Not just on the field, either.”
They scripted Jackson’s 59-throw pro day session carefully and have talked at length before every NFL team meeting. They’ve drilled down on some finer points — protections, footwork, that elbow. Harris would give Jackson new elements along the way, and he said Jackson sponged up every drop.
“What [NFL teams have] learned and have told me is that Lamar is a learner,” Harris said. “What you have to realize is that he did exactly what Louisville asked him to do. …
“He’s a perfectionist. If you teach him something, he’s going to pick it up. That’s what I think NFL teams are figuring out. He’s willing to learn and learn something new and different and do things a certain way.”
Harris is also learning about the business of it all and how everyone has a platform to take shots at him and his student. He’s gotten irritated at what he feels are some “unfair” criticisms but also recognizes and admits that Jackson “is not some perfect prospect. He has some things he knows he has to get better at, and that’s exactly how we’ve tried to spend our time together.”
As for the draft and what the future holds, Harris says he truly knows how it will unfold or what’s in store. His life as a pastor has taught him not to try to hope for outcomes that might appear on the surface to be ideal but rather to be hopeful — there’s a difference, he says — for everything that lies ahead.
“The whole camp — his mom, his family, me, everyone else around Lamar — we just want what’s best for him,” Harris said. “We’re all people of faith, and what God has for him is what’s best for him.
“He’s such a humble kid. You never know you’re talking to the Heisman [Trophy winner] when you’re around him. He’s a yes-sir, no-sir type of kid. What people learn quickly with Lamar is that he’s got a magnetic personality the minute they’re around him.”
The next time we will hear from Jackson and that personality, it likely will come with an NFL team’s hat on. And where he ends up — and how it all unfolds — looks like it’s going to be one of the most fascinating Draft Day stories in some time.