Notre Dame football: Jackson emerges as force in the secondary

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Energy got him noticed in the first place.

Bennett Jackson isn’t about to change his approach with 13 games left in his Notre Dame football career.

Four years ago, Jackson was a freshman receiver who caught the eye of the Irish coaches as a physical presence on special teams.

Not often do opponents game-plan against a freshman on kick coverage.

Jackson put the “special” in special teams.

It was obvious he had a future on the field. The question was: Where?

Speed got the 6-foot, 195-pound Jackson his look at receiver. But his physical presence carved a niche at cor-nerback.

After spending his sophomore season as a secondary apprentice, he graduated to master craftsman last year. Jackson was third on the team (behind Manti Te’o 113 and Zeke Motta 77) with 65 tackles, had four interceptions, eight passes defended and four broken up.

All with a bum shoulder that hadn’t been right since his sophomore year.

Postseason surgery fixed the right wing and will send Jackson into his senior year pain-free — for the first time in as long as he can remember.

Not only will the hurt be gone, but a lot of the doubt has, likewise, evaporated. Last season was all about learning for first-time starters Jackson and KeiVarae Russell.

The Notre Dame defense yielded about 200 passing yards a game, while allowing a 60 percent completion rate, last season. Growing pains got in the way of some of the progress.

While surgery helped solve the physical hurt, experience is the salve to soothe the rookie mistakes.

Add Lo Wood, returning from an Achilles injury last season, with Jackson and Russell and the cornerback posi-tion goes from question mark to exclamation point.

Jackson is the glue that will keep it together.

“Bennett’s a competitor,” said junior safety Matthias Farley. “He wants to be the best at what he does. He’s fast. He hits hard. Great ball skills.

“He has a want-to and a will that people look up to and take note of. He attacks practice because he wants (to be the best) so badly.

“He has a desire to be great. It’s infectious.”

That infection is spread to a position group that will be held to a high standard this season.

“We’re just going to go out there and do what we do,” Jackson said. “If we do that, we’re going to get done what we need to do. Expectations don’t mean that much. We’re just going to try to stay level-headed and continue to push each other.”

That push has a little more oomph when it’s seasoned with experience.

“We don’t have the ‘first-game jitters’ anymore,” Jackson said. “You go in and you know what to expect. You know how you have to prepare yourself for every play.

“We have a great chance to build as a unit and become a complete package.

“Depth gives you a chance to compete harder. It helps the guys at the bottom (of the depth chart) push them-selves up higher by competing against one another; something we didn’t have last year. Guys would get relaxed. Having the guys to push makes everybody better.”

“The way our corners play, to have three guys who can play at a very, very, very high level, makes it easier for the coaches,” Farley said. “They could all start. It’s a great feeling, I’m sure, for the coaches, and I know it feels good for the safeties.”

Seems like just the other day that Jackson was earning some time on the field as a rookie. Now he’s the veteran of a bunch of quality athletes. The lessons he has learned are not going to waste.

“I learned, don’t show leniency on an upperclassmen,” Jackson said of the wisdom he imparts regularly. “If you’re coming in and you’ve got a chance to hit somebody, don’t pull off or give less energy.

“That’s what I did sometimes (in practice). I wouldn’t hit somebody as hard when I had a chance to make a play. I’d push a young guy to go all-out at all times. Great energy is never going to get you in trouble. It’s never going to hurt you. You might get yelled at, but at the end of the day, the coaches are going to like it.”

Now he’s learning the hitting comes easier when there isn’t pain with every blow.

“It’s weird (not to have pain) because I’m always used to not going all the way in with a punch because I know (the shoulder) would go all the way out (of place),” Jackson said. “It’s just something you have to get used to from hitting a couple times.

“I just feel good. I can get out there and be 100 percent confident in every part of my body.”

Confident in his play and his body.

Add energy and the package is complete.

Intensity has helped Bennett Jackson succeed at Notre Dame. South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER