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Preston Jackson: Proving everyone wrong

Justin Schuver | Friday, November 12, 2004

What would possibly make a talented football player from the state of Florida ignore the lure of southern programs and come instead to a tiny Catholic school in the middle of frigid northern Indiana?

Ask Preston Jackson, and he’ll tell you.

“I was basically looking for the best opportunity possible,” Jackson said. “I wanted to succeed academically and wanting to play the best football possible, that’s how I got from Florida and ended up here.”

The fifth-year senior from Tampa, Fla., has grown into his role as Notre Dame’s starting cornerback – joining fellow Floridian Dwight Ellick in the defensive backfield. Jackson has had perhaps his best season so far in an Irish uniform, scoring a touchdown against BYU off an interception.

The 5-foot-9, 180-pound Jackson has also made the most of his compact body, providing several bone-jarring hits during the season and priding himself on his physical play.

“I play football. Football is a physical game,” he said. “I don’t care what size you are, you’ve got to be able to do what you’ve got to do. It’s 11-on-11 and you’ve got to be a physical player, no matter what position you play.”

Making the hit

Throughout his Irish career, Jackson has always been in the defensive backfield – whether as a cornerback or as a nickel back in passing situations.

As a senior at Hillsborough High School in Tampa, Jackson made 57 tackles and five interceptions in 1999, helping his team to the region finals of the Florida Class 5A state playoffs. Unlike other high school star recruits, by his senior year Jackson focused primarily on the defensive side of the ball, although he did return punts and kickoffs as well.

It was Jackson’s hustle and willingness to make the big hit that endeared him to Irish head coach Bob Davie and his coaching staff, and the same qualities continue to impress his current coaches.

“He’s smart on the field,” Irish secondary coach Steven Wilks said. “He always puts himself in the position to make the big play, and he gets that from watching film and things like that.

“He’s not just a leader of the secondary, he’s a leader of this entire team.”

Jackson embraces his role as defensive back, taking the criticism that goes with the position, as well as the glory from making a big interception or hit.

“The thing about being a defensive back is that it’s going to be 50/50,” Jackson said. “If you get beat it’s going to be real glaring, but if you make a good play it’s also going to be real glaring. You’ve got to take the good with the bad. You’ve got to be confident and a competitive athlete to play in the defensive backfield. Really though, it’s always fun to be on the defensive side of the ball, period.”

In addition to his performance on the field, Jackson enjoys his role as a vocal leader for the team. Talking, trying to get in the mind of the opponent, trying to psyche out the other team’s receivers – it’s all in a day’s work for Jackson.

“It’s kind of your nature as a corner to do all the yapping all the time,” he said. “We probably talk more than the other players on the field.”

Of course, it shouldn’t be surprising that Jackson talks so much. His role model taught him well.

Walton’s influence

Shane Walton, who played at Notre Dame from 1999 to 2001, bears several comparisons to Jackson. Both came to play for the Irish from warmer-climate states (Walton played high school football in California).

Both were considered undersized (Walton was 5-foot-10, 185 pounds). Both are characterized by their toughness and willingness to talk on the field.

And, according to Jackson, both know the importance of having a high football ‘IQ.’

“I watched Shane. Everybody knows that Shane was very smart, even if he wasn’t the best athlete on the field,” Jackson said. “If you watch the guys ahead of you and watch the mistakes they make you can learn from them and make you a better player.

“I try to almost mock him in a way, be a good leader and also watch film and study what my opponent does. If you study your opponent and know what he’s going to do, then it’s really easy to make plays – you don’t even have to be the best athlete.”

Jackson showed his knowledge of other team’s offenses right away in the 2004 season. In the first game of the year, against Brigham Young, the senior made a perfect read on a slant and picked off BYU quarterback Matt Berry’s pass, returning it 38 yards for a touchdown.

It was a burst of positive press for a player who has been criticized often during his career.

“I think for my career, my performance has gotten better every time I’ve stepped on the field,” Jackson said. “A lot of people counting me out when I first got here, but I shrugged my shoulders at all that – I played for myself and my family and the people out of my state. This season I’ve progressed and I’m pretty proud of myself or doing that.”

So proud, in fact, that he’s learned to all but ignore criticism from the media and the Notre Dame faithful. As a cornerback, Jackson has learned to have a short memory and quickly bounce back from a bad play.

And as a member of a Notre Dame team that has had its struggles during his career, he’s learned to dodge criticism of the team itself.

“The fans don’t play; people who write stories don’t play, and they write stories that the public wants to hear,” Jackson said. “So, it’s really not for the media and for some of the fans – we’re basically playing for ourselves and the people who wore the uniform before us. If we win and other people are proud of us, then fine. If we lose and they don’t like us any more, forget it, we’re going to line up and play again – that’s just how it is.”

It’s that closeness and camaraderie that sums up Jackson’s enjoyment of his Irish career.

Growing as a team

Jackson has been through a lot in his five years, from witnessing the changing of a coaching staff – not once but twice – to going from a Fiesta Bowl season to a sub-.500 year.

But through it all, the defensive back has looked to his teammates as a calming influence and source of pride.

“There’s just something about playing with the same group of guys day-in and day-out over 300 days a year,” Jackson said. “You get the camaraderie from all the times you spend with each other. And you get to know each other, so you don’t take everything personal. We joke on the field all the time and have fun; it’s just the chemistry we have.”

That closeness as a team also helps when the Irish go through their lower points of the season – the losses that cause the team’s fans to sometimes turn on the Irish.

“I wouldn’t say they were our down games; they were probably games that we learned more from,” Jackson said of losses like BYU and Boston College. “Every week you play a whole different kind of offense. So, being in the secondary, you’ve got to learn to shrug things off. You have to get off the field and bounce back to make a play the next time. You may get beat one time, but that’s football – they other team wants to make a play, too.”

Jackson has been there to comfort his teammates, as well, such as against Boston College when fellow defensive back Mike Richardson was the player who the Eagles’ Tony Gonzalez beat for the winning touchdown.

“It’s never one play that loses a ball game,” Jackson said of what he told Richardson after the loss. “It’s things that happened in the first through third quarters that lose ball games, and it’s just so evident that sometimes your mistake is more evident than the things before that.”

And yet through all the criticism and the praise, through the high times and the low times, Jackson has continued to remain focused on his ultimate goals.

“I’m going to keep my options open. I earned my degree and I’m going to put myself in the job market; make myself marketable – that’s what I came to school for,” Jackson said. “I’m not sure about the [National Football] league; if the opportunity comes I’ll jump on it, but for right now I’ve got very broad horizons and a lot of things to reach out and grab. I’ve got personal goals I’ve set for myself, and I’m hoping to accomplish them.”