"This is a major opportunity for us to play a Top 10 team against one of the greatest coaches in college history," Jackson says. "You can't be more excited. Going to Disney World and playing a football game--that is a win-win situation.
This has not been Jackson's first trip visiting the famous mouse plus Orlando's other attractions. The New Year's Day Capital One Bowl game also won't be the true freshman's first opportunity to contribute in a big game for the Tigers.
The 6-1, 290-pounder from Opelika High held his own this year against the big boys, contributing 23 tackles, including nine behind the line of scrimmage. He has a lot of raw power and surprising quickness. That, combined with a willingness to play hard all of the time, has allowed him to play early, even during crucial downs.
Jackson is shown during a practice at Auburn as position coach Don Dunn watches in the background.
"When I came in my freshman year I wanted to contribute and just try to help the total team effort and just be able to try to produce a little," Jackson says. "Hopefully, Coach (Don Dunn, defensive tackles) thinks that I have done that. I hope so because it is really what I want to do. I am just proud that I was able to be on the field with a bunch of great guys that we have out there and I am excited that I was able to be there. And, you know, now I get to play in a bowl game and that's just great."
Dunn says that Jackson is still learning the finer points of defensive line play, but says he likes the effort he has gotten from the freshman. "T.J. is a delight to coach," Dunn says. "He plays hard and really wants to be a good player. I see good things for him in the future."
Jackson says the biggest adjustment he has had to make to the college game is dealing with the pace of play. "The game is fast and I have had to learn how to adjust to it. I am ecstatic that I am getting to play. It's great being out there and it's great to know that I have got three more years to look forward to playing football. All this season has done is make me love playing football even more."
Jackson missed practice time in Auburn prior to the Christmas break as he worked on recovering from a groin pull. He has been back on the practice field in Orlando, but it is not certain that he will be 100 percent vs. the Nittany Lions as the backup to Demarco McNeil. However, Tommy Tuberville said on Monday that he the freshmen looks ready to go at full speed.
Jackson is shown making his announcement as a high school senior that he was headed to Auburn.
The freshman says that during his first college season he has learned the value of listening to advice from his teammates. "The older guys that have been here before--when they teach you something, it is a good idea to listen and keep asking questions. They have always taken the attitude that, ‘Hey, we'll help you.' It is great to be around guys like that. I am extremely happy that I was able to learn form such great guys and great leaders.
"This team is like a family," Jackson adds. "You know, everybody here is like your older brother or your younger brother. The freshmen are the younger brothers right now and seniors are showing us the ropes. They are always going to be tough on you, but they are doing it so that you understand, so that you learn. The older guys that are about to graduate are going to a big loss to us, but the juniors are about to step up and be seniors and continue the process. You just hope that when somebody else is trying to lead that they will do as well as our seniors this year did."
With most of the key players returning, Jackson predicts the Tigers will be tough in 2003. The freshman says winning the New Year's Day game vs. Penn State would be a great way to go into his sophomore season. "If we win this game it would hopefully put us in the Top 10 to start next year and that would be a great start on the battle to get to our ultimate goal, which is to play for the national championship. I think with the coaching staff and the guys that we have, that might be possible. And, hopefully, if we keep fighting and we keep playing for it, it will happen one day."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Jackson says that he doesn't plan to relax after the bowl game. "I want to make sure that I work hard during the off-season, do a lot of listening, do a lot of learning, watch a lot of film and hopefully all of it will pay off when USC comes here next year. There is always much to improve on, especially for a young guy." Jackson also says that he wants to drop a little weight. He weighed 304 when he arrived on campus and has played at under 300 this season. "I probably want to drop to 285," he says. "That is just five pounds less than I weigh now, but hopefully that will make my step a little swifter. I am also hoping to gain more strength because on this level guys are stronger, bigger and faster and you just want to be able to compete with them. And guys like that, you see them week in and week. It is amazing how well offensive linemen can run these days."