Shedding the blocks
Matthew DeFranks | Wednesday, September 25, 2013
Nothing is new to Bennett Jackson anymore – not a different role, not a different position, not even different sports.
He’s used to it.
The senior cornerback has risen to captain, switched sides of the ball and juggled sports in his four years at Notre Dame, marking one of the most versatile careers of any Irish player in recent history.
But none of this is new.
Leading is old
Prior to the season, Jackson was named one of three Irish captains, joining senior receiver TJ Jones and graduate student tackle Zack Martin. But Jackson is the only man with a “C” on the defensive side of the ball.
If you thought a simple letter on a jersey would change Jackson’s approach, you’d be wrong.
“At the end of the day, I was really that guy last year,” Jackson said. “I was just as vocal, just as energetic. It’s just Manti was just that main focus, that strength, strong point in the defense. I just try to be as vocal as I can, as energetic as I can, as communicative as I can and just keep things rolling.”
Last season was Jackson’s first as a starter with the Irish and he helped anchor a secondary that included three first-time starters. This season, though, he’s the man on the back end of the defense, he’s the lockdown corner, he’s the voice.
Irish coach Brian Kelly said Jackson has been hard on himself since being a captain.
“It has a tendency to put a little bit more pressure on you,” he said. “You don’t want to let anybody down. You want to live up to the incredible history and tradition of being a captain here at Notre Dame.”
Jackson has transformed himself from first-time starter into a statistical hybrid in just one season. He is only behind the inside linebackers in tackles and behind only defensive linemen in sacks.
But racking up stats is nothing compared to switching positions.
Switching positions is old
Jackson used to be a running back – when he was six-years old.
He scored his first-ever touchdown at the position, dashing in from 60 yards out and adding a heel-click and a skip as he crossed the goal line.
Then, Jackson was a receiver. He was an All-State wideout in high school and came to Notre Dame as the second-best receiver from New Jersey.
Jackson was buried on the depth chart, however, and saw playing time primarily on special teams as a freshman, returning kickoffs with his current secondary-mate Austin Collinsworth. He averaged 22 yards per return and said he still occasionally thinks about returning kicks again.
“Of course sometimes I’m like ‘Damn, I wish I would have gotten that kick return,'” he said. “At the end of the day, I’m so focused on what I’m trying to get done and what I need to do that I don’t really pay too much attention.”
Jackson is now trying to stop opposing offenses doing what he did to defenses as both a Mighty Mite and a high-school star. Before his sophomore season, Jackson switched sides over to defense as a cornerback and has not looked back.
“I love playing corner,” he said. “Just comparing it from a corner to a receiver, I just feel like it’s a lot harder of a job. I just enjoy it really. I’m glad you get a chance to hit people. I didn’t necessarily like running across the middle as a receiver and getting blasted.”
The film, television and theater major said trusting the coaches was key in making the change.
“You’re open to just going, open to coaching and just loving coach push you around and show you different places you fit,” he said. “I really just trusted them and worked as hard as I could to get better at that position, which was frustrating a little at first but now down the road, it definitely is an advantage.”
Jackson is now in his third year since the transition and has become more and more comfortable with his play.
“I feel like I’ve played a lot more confidently this year,” Jackson said. “I kind of know there’s no receiver that’s going to run past me or what not if I’m on my game. I feel like I’ve played similarly. Just last year, I had a little more of a faster start with just being in the right place with the interceptions.”
Former Notre Dame cornerback Shane Walton, the last Irish All-American at the position, said cornerbacks need to have a unique mindset to play the position successfully.
“You’re playing a position where you’re supposed to get beaten every once in a while,” Walton said. “To have a mentality that I’m not going to get beaten and still get beaten, and then I’m not going to get beaten again, you definitely have to have a different mentality.
“It’s almost like being a distance runner. … I think that these guys mentally are so strong and so strong-willed, it’s almost what a corner has to be. Their minds have to be so powerful and so strong-willed, the mindset has to be that it’s not going to happen again.”
Jackson knows all about track athletes.
Switching sports is old
As a sophomore, Jackson (along with George and Josh Atkinson) began to run track. The Hazlet, N.J., native competed in four indoor meets for the Irish, running the 60-meter hurdles.
The speedster ran a personal-best 8.12 in the event before focusing exclusively on football. Jackson said he simply did not have time for track but still sees some similarities between sprinting and cornerback.
“I guess in a way, just being an individual,” Jackson said. “As a corner, a lot of times, you’re on that island and you kind of just react.
“I was just running track because I just loved having that individual aspect of my life, relying on myself. I think it definitely helps me at corner. When I’m at corner, I’m on my own basically, the majority of the time.”
In high school, Jackson also played point guard on the basketball team and had previously played soccer and baseball. Two sports is not as hard when you have already played five.
Now, everything is old for Jackson.
He’s been a leader long before a letter told him he was. He’s in his third season on defense and second as a starter. He’s not thinking about track anymore.
He’s used to it.
Contact Matthew DeFranks at email@example.com