RENO - From unrecruited walk-on to one of the top safeties on the team. It's safe to say that Justin Jackson has been the success story of the Nevada football team.
Jackson played at Folsom High School for ex-NFL quarterback Troy Taylor, but the colleges weren't interested in a 170-pound outside linebacker.
So, it was on to nearby American River College where he was an all-conference safety for two years and all state in 2005.
Still, interest was slow to come, and the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Jackson wasn't sure why.
"I was surprised coming out of ARC," Jackson said after Tuesday's practice. "I got recruited by a couple of NAIA schools and University of San Diego. There was no Division I offer; didn't have an offer on the table. I knew I was going to walk on somewhere.
"Nevada showed interest in me since I was a freshman. I liked the area and it's not too far away from home; a two-hour drive. I came here, and hopefully I'll earn one (a scholarship)."
And, make no mistake about it, the Pack defensive coaches are happy Jackson is on their side.
"We recruited him as a walk-on last year, after coach (Barry) Sacks showed me his tape," said Tim DeRuyter. "He came in last spring. I knew during spring he had some challenges. Over the summer, he got bigger, stronger and quicker. During fall camp, he really came on."
So much so that he's working with the No. 1 defense this week after performing well in a 28-19 loss to Fresno State last weekend.
"After the first three plays and the awe of playing in front of 40,000 fans, I think I played all right," Jackson said. "Uche (Anyanwu) got hurt and they put me in there."
Jackson has quietly gone about his business, and you don't notice him right away because he doesn't have great speed or size. In fact, he gets by more on guile than he does physically.
And, when you ask him how he moved up the depth chart, he answers matter-of-factly.
"I do what I'm told and I don't talk back," Jackson said. "I'm not the most athletic guy out there. I know where I'm supposed to be."
"He has a very sharp football mind," DeRuyter said. "He's also a physical player. He has range and good ball skills."
Those capabilities have enabled him to play both safety spots for the Pack. He originally was a free safety, but when senior Nick Hawthrone came back from knee surgery, Jackson was moved to strong safety.
"When I was coming here, I wanted to play free safety," Jackson said. "When Nick came back, they bumped me to strong. Now that I'm getting used to it more and more, I want to stay at strong safety."
Playing safety at Nevada is a little different. In the pro game and at a lot of colleges, the strong safety is usually bigger than the free safety and is more of a run stopper. The free safety helps out more in pass coverage.
"When I came from ARC, I saw they used their safeties completely different," Jackson said. "At ARC, I was more of a run safety. It was a big transition from run stopping to stopping the pass. I'm learning, and I still have a long ways to go.
"I have more responsibilities then I've ever had. Before, I was run first and pass second. Now it's pass first and run second."
DeRuyter said that in his scheme the free and strong safety are interchangeable, and that guys like Jackson and Hawthrone have the ability, physically and mentally, to play both spots.
Jackson admitted that film study will be a big plus, and help him make the transition easier.
"At ARC, they would give you videos," Jackson said. "Here, everything is broken down with down and distance. It makes it easier to pick up a team's tendencies."
DeRuyter said that his back-up safeties Anyanwu and Sergio Villasenor are more one-position type players.
"Uche is more of a strong safety and Sergio is more of a free safety," DeRuyter said. "I have four guys back there that I feel good about."
With that said, Jackson knows he can't let up for even a minute, otherwise he'll be out of a job.
"I have to fight for my position on every play," Jackson said. "There are two or three other guys that can step in. It's a lot of pressure, but it's good pressure. It keeps me competitive."
And on his toes, ready to stop anything coming his way.
•Contact Darrell Moody at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1281
Contact Darrell Moody at email@example.com, or by calling (775) 881-1281
THE JACKSON FILE
Position: Strong safety
Year in school: Junior
Sports hero: Ronnie Lott