Change can be good. Just ask Alabama junior safety Eddie Jackson. Jackson, a 6-0, 194-pound junior, had been a starter as a true freshman and as a sophomore at cornerback. This year he made the switch to safety. He also is working under a new position coach. Moreover, he has seen a big change in the Crimson Tide from last season.
Now Eddie Jackson wants to see a change in the result with Alabama back on college football’s big stage, the semifinals of the College Football Playoff. The Crimson Tide is in Dallas, putting the finishing touches on plans for Thursday’s Cotton Bowl game against Michigan State in Cowboys Stadium. Kickoff is at 7 p.m. CST with television coverage by ESPN.
Not many expected Bama to be back in position for a chance at the national championship after an early season loss to Ole Miss, but the Crimson Tide recovered from that setback in the third week of the season, righted the ship with good leadership, and is now ranked second in the nation with a 12-1 record.
“It feels pretty good,” said Jackson, “The last result (an upset loss to Ohio State in the semifinals of the inaugural CFP last year in the Sugar Bowl) wasn’t too good, so we’re coming in here wanting to change that.
“It feels good to prove everybody wrong, but like Coach (Nick) Saban says, we don’t play for them, we play for ourselves, and that has what kept us going day-in and day-out, trying to prove something to ourselves. We know how good we are and what we can accomplish.”
Jackson, a native of Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., earned four starts at cornerback as a true freshman. After recovering from a spring ACL injury and surgery in the spring of 2014, he returned to start 10 games last year. In those two seasons as a corner he played in 18 games with 60 total tackles (48 primary), 3 tackles for losses of 15 yards, a quarterback pressure, 2 interceptions, 10 passes broken up, two forced fumbles, and three fumble recoveries.
This season he earned first team All-Southeastern Conference and second team All-America as he was in on 40 tackles (29 primary), 3 tackles for losses of 12 yards, caused and recovered a fumble, broke up 2 passes, and had an SEC-best 5 interceptions for 230 yards in returns with two touchdowns. His 230 yards in interception return yards is the Tide season record and his 119 yards on 2 interceptions against Texas A&M is the Bama single game mark.
Three of his interceptions this year came in the state of Texas, including one returned for 41 yards in the season,-opener in Cowboys Stadium in a 35-17 win over Wisconsin. He scored touchdowns on a 50-yard interception runback at Georgia and a 93-yard interception runback at Texas A&M.
To some extent, the loss to Ohio State in last year’s Sugar Bowl has motivated this year’s team. Several players mentioned the quiet of the locker room following Bama’s elimination from the CFP. “It hurt to see those guys (seniors) like that,” Jackson said. “We came in this season and let it motivate us, put a chip on our shoulder, comi,ng in every day, working to the best of our ability, take no days off, try to do what we want to do this year.”
Last year’s loss, though, does not haunt the team. Jackson said, “We really don’t focus on the past. We focus on what’s next.”
One thing different from last season is the makeup of the coaching staff. And it will be different again, still, following the Tide’s season.
Jackson moved to safety just as Alabama lost linebackers coaches Kevin Steele and Lance Thompson last year. That meant defensive coordinator Kirby Smart went from safeties coach to inside linebackers. Alabama Coach Nick Saban reached into the NFL ranks to bring Mel Tucker in to coach safeties.
That has pleased Jackson. “He’s brought a lot of energy,” Jackson said. “He’s a guy who will scream at you, day-in and day-out. ‘Break on the ball!’ ‘Scoop and score!’ “Rip it out! Rip it out!’ So things like that it really motivates us and gets us going.”
Jackson didn’t know he would be playing safety until about a week prior to the end of spring practice. He first talked to Saban, then to Tucker, then to Smart. “It was a bit of a rush,” he said, “At first, I was like, ‘Ahhh.’ But I played safety in high school. Whatever Coach Saban feels is best, I put my trust in him. He’s never led me down the wrong path.”
Jackson did think about some previous Alabama safeties – Mark Barron, HaHa Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins. “I was like´, ‘Man, those guys were big,’” Jackson said. “But I came in and tried to do the best I could, and it’s worked out for the best.”
Jackson is nothing if not resilient. He said one lingering memory is from a practice during his freshman year when his position, coach at the time – Saban – was yelling at him about a broken assignment. “It almost brought tears to my eyes,” Jackson said. ‘I’d never had that feeling before. It was scary. HaHa came and talked to me and said, ‘This is big boy ball. This isn’t high school anymore.’
“It just gets you down a little bit, but he doesn’t do it to hurt you. He does it to help you. Like they say, if he doesn’t, you should be worried. You know if you messed up and you know he saw it, and if he’s not correcting it, you should be concerned. So you really have to tighten it up, show him that you’re ready to play college football.”
A change is coming for the Crimson Tide following the season as Kirby Smart moves on to become head coach at Georgia and Jeremy Pruitt returns to Alabama as defensive coordinator.
Jackson said Smart “has been the same” since his appointment by Georgia. “He’s been up, trying to get the job done. Same old Coach Smart. You wouldn’t know he was leaving to take another school. We’re happy for him. He deserves it. He’s a great guy. It was a fun three years.”
The fact that Smart stayed on at Bama for the playoffs “means a lot,” Jackson said. “We’ve got even more respect for him now, because we know he could have left, but he’s spending that extra time working with us even while he’s recruiting for his new team, so it’s a great thing he stayed with us.”
Alabama’s football team changed after its loss to Ole Miss in the third game of the season. “We took them lightly,” Jackson said. “We didn’t come out and play our best game. Execution; four or five turnovers (five). That played a bigt role in it. After that, we nailed it down, got our keys right, everyone really bought in to what we’re trying to do.”
He said there was also a big change from last year in the leadership provided by players. Jackson is one of many Bama players who point out the leadership provided by the likes of defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson and linebacker Reggie Ragland. “I can say it was [a change] from a leadership role on the defense last year to where it is now. Guys have been stepping up, correcting guys with mistakes, getting hyped, yelling at you.”
Jackson said Alabama will havez to play well against Michigan State, led by the Spartans outstanding quarterback, Conner Cook. “Tjhey are a great team offensively and defensively,” Jackson said.
He is particularly impressed by Cook. “He is a great quarterback,” Jackson said. He’s an accurate guy. Some of the throws he made (during film study), I was like ‘Whoa!’ He’s an accurate passer, rarely makes mistakes. He knows how to check.”
When Cook has to scramble, he will try to stay in the pocket and find receivers, who Jackson said know what to do when a play breaks down. Jackson said his fellow safety, Geno Matias-Smith, was watching video of Michigan State and named Cook “Peyton Manning.”
So, Jackson was asked, have you seen any quarterbacks play against Alabama who were able to stay in the pocket?
The Tide safety had a self-conscious smile.
“Not many,” he said. “Not many. Really, I don’t think we were in a game where the quarterback just sat in the pocket like that. We have a wonderful front seven. It’s really been difficult. But they have a good offensive line, a good offense, and he’s a grxeat quarterback.”
Smart was asked if the move of cornerbacks (both Jackson and Geno Matias-Smith, the starting Tide safeties, are former corners) would be common soon. Smart said, “The way college football is, I think you have to have that a little bit. But I also think that those guys have bought in to playing our style of play and doing it right and being able to cover slot guys.
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“Having a guy that’s athletic and instinctive like Eddie. At the end of the day, you’d say what’s Eddie’s weakness? Well, maybe he’s not as physical or a run-stopper like Landon, but that’s never been an issue for us, stopping the run. Our issue has been giving up big plays, explosive plays, and he helps prevent that because that’s his strength.”