Football

The Thundering Word: Freshman Jackson ‘corners’ early notice

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HUNTINGTON – To have an opportunity is one thing; to seize it another.

Chris Jackson had both experiences as a collegiate rookie in Marshall’s spring football practices.

In some ways, there’s little to suggest that Jackson would have provided an eye-opening performance with the Herd having a gaping vacancy at cornerback.

On the other hand, to consider Jackson in such a fashion – as many recruiters did – would be dismissive … because there’s much more to the 6-foot, 170-pound teenager than turning every possession of man coverage into a physical battle.

“He’s kind of a quiet kid; at times you wouldn’t even know Chris is there,” said Chuck Heater, who has three roles in Jackson’s presence with the Herd – as defensive coordinator, secondary coach and the player’s primary recruiter. “But there’s kind of a toughness there.

“I guess I’d say he played with a great demeanor.”

Heater found Jackson in Tallahassee, Fla., at FAMU Developmental Research School – otherwise known as FAMU High School. It’s the same school that a decade ago produced a midyear Herd recruit in defensive back David Gibson, who died in a January 2006 car crash en route from Florida to Huntington.

Jackson hails from Midway, Fla., located about 13 miles west of Tallahassee on I-10. Asked to describe Midway, Jackson grinned.

“Two stoplights,” he said.

“His high school is a small-division school, and I think if Chris had been playing at one of the bigger two or three Tallahassee schools, he’d have gotten more attention,” Heater said. “He’d have been more exposed. I knew the coach (Ira Reynolds) there, known him for a long time, been stopping at the school over 10 years, recruiting northern Florida. He told me about Chris and I liked what I saw.”

Raised by his grandmother, Delores Madison, since his mother died while he was in elementary school, Christopher D’Wayne Jackson brings a maturity and seriousness to more than the field. He’s finishing his first semester on the MU campus after graduating early from high school.

“I take academics and football seriously, and that comes from my family,” Jackson said in a Wednesday interview in the Shewey Building. “My grandmother is a wonderful woman, and she taught me to get my responsibilities taken care of before anything else.

“As my grandmother, she’s the one who really taught me how to be a man.”

Jackson, who just turned 18 on April 13, is learning from Heater how to be a cornerback, where he played with the “ones” during spring ball.

“Truthfully, in high school I never played corner,” Jackson said. “I was a safety and wide receiver. My junior year, I played a couple of snaps at corner, but that’s it – mostly receiver/safety. So, when I came here, it was kind of a new thing, so I just worked hard at it and learned it.

“I had to learn very fast how to play corner, the technique, what’s different about it. What helped is I took coaching from Coach Heater and the players around me helped me out a lot, so I just took that and played football.

“The difference is corner is a lot more technical to me. Our safeties here even play different than we did in high school. It’s not the same; it’s a lot more technique than just using your physical ability.”

Jackson was a Florida 2A All-State first team wide receiver last season, as FAMU High has reached the state playoffs in nine of the past 13 seasons.

“Coach Reynolds is special to me, and he was a big part of making the choice I did to come here,” Jackson said. “He’s been my coach since middle school. He’s been a mentor, and he has a lot of strong connections, like the one with Coach Heater. And we both thought Marshall was the best place for me.”

Jackson, who has run a 4.4 in the 40, is a two-time Florida state high school track champion in the 110-meter hurdles, and a runner-up in the 300 hurdles. His football offers included the Herd, Florida A&M, Troy, Appalachian State and Kent State. USF, Indiana and Kentucky showed passing interest, too.

“It did give me more incentive because of the (lack of) offers,” he said. “I could have moved to another school, but I stayed at FAMU because it felt like home to me. A lot of the bigger Tallahassee high schools wanted me to come play there, but I never did. FAMU was home, and then I was just blessed with the offers I did get.”

He committed to the Herd on July 29, then made his official visit on the September weekend of Marshall’s win over Norfolk State.

“It felt like a family here at Marshall when I came on my visit,” Jackson said. “Of all of the schools, this one felt like a true family, from the football team to the women’s basketball team to the student body, to the faculty. It actually felt like a big family.

“And I have a great relationship with Coach Heater. He’s one of the first coaches to actually recruit me. He was there, one of the first guys who saw my talent and was interested. I’ve known him for a year or two. It’s just a great experience to have his leadership now. We have a great bond.”

Jackson was born in Minneapolis, then after a move to Chicago, he landed in Florida. Raised by what Heater called “a great grandmother,” Jackson put as much focus and nose-to-grindstone into academics as football and was able to make a December graduation and get to Marshall to go through spring practice … a major advantage over other incoming freshmen, who will arrive next month.

“I came in with two college credits (six hours), in English 1 and 2,” Jackson said. “I took pre-calculus my junior year in high school, and to graduate early I needed to take two economics classes and American government.

“Back in middle school, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Then, in eighth grade, they put me in high school math while still in middle school, and I started to really grow fond of math and then computers. I’d like to go into computer science or computer engineering, but it’s still early.”

On the field, Heater finds a more dedicated and player than he usually sees in major college newcomers.

“I checked in at (FAMU High) last year like I always did and Chris caught my attention,” Heater said earlier this week by phone while watching a high school practice in Jacksonville. “I really liked the way he looked and moved.

“I talked to Coach Reynolds about him. Got good reviews. I saw a track guy, a long guy for his size, but you don’t know if he’s going to catch on as well as he did. For us, that’s kind of getting lucky. But he just looked comfortable at corner, and had that it factor we talk about.

“There was a certain competitiveness about him, a little something you don’t always find. And you never have enough corners. Now, it’s all about the transition to college football, but he’s doing the right things.”

Asked about arriving in a successful and established program as a midyear newcomer and fitting in, Jackson wasn’t intimidated. In spring ball, day after day, he went man-to-man against more experienced receivers.

And when he’d make a breakup, he’d often display emotion. Then, it was back to the task at hand.

“I’ve just been like that ever since high school,” Jackson said. “Coach Reynolds always would always say I’d make a play, get excited, and then he’d say I’d be just as calm, like I never made it … It’s just how I learned to play. You have to be confident. Then, you have to focus.

“No, I wasn’t surprised (with his spring performance). That’s because Coach Reynolds always told me I had a lot of talent and he never understood why a lot of bigger schools didn’t recruit me. Florida State used to come by my school a lot, but they never offered me, and Coach Reynolds always wondered why they didn’t.

“Next, I want to learn the defense, the whole defense, get that down pat. Get better at my position, at my technique. Work on my ball skills, on coverage. I’ve still got plenty to learn. Get stronger.”

Jackson may have been under the radar as a FBS prospect, and when he joined the Herd program as a rookie in January, it was in an unassuming way – unlike his introduction to Marshall wideouts during spring ball.

“When you’re fitting in, just be yourself,” Jackson said. “When I got here, I just always tried to be myself. That’s what it’s all about. Naturally, you’re going to make friends on the football team because you’re together with them every day.

“So, just be yourself and then you make friends naturally … and then friends turn into family.”

That would seem to be the case, even if you are wrestling with them in the Herd secondary.

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