CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – In 1969, David Jackson served as a co-captain on Bill Dooley’s third team at North Carolina. On Saturday, Thomas Jackson, David’s son, will take the field at the Georgia Dome as a scholarship player for this first time in his Tar Heel career.
As UNC’s training camp entered its final weekend in mid-August, Larry Fedora called Jackson into his office for a chat. The junior wide receiver, who joined the team prior to the 2014 season, initially thought he had erred in some way. Instead, Fedora calmly told him he had been placed on scholarship.
No overt fanfare, no video cameras close by for public relations purposes, just a business decision based upon Jackson’s work in the classroom and on the playing field.
“He’s a guy that walked on the program and he can really run and he’s an intelligent kid,” Fedora said after Wednesday’s practice. “He tries extremely hard all of the time. He’s going to give you his best effort. That’s why he got put on scholarship this year. We expect him to help us. He’s helping on all of the special teams and he’s going to be able to go out there and help us on offense, so he’s kind of following Mack [Hollins’s] footsteps of the way Mack did it.”
Jackson admits his development was lacking until his senior season at Charlotte Country Day. By that time, it was too late to draw much interest from FCS programs, let alone FBS powerhouses. UNC wide receivers coach Gunter Brewer, who recruits the Charlotte area, kept tabs with the elusive 5-foot-11 prospect. That relationship prompted Jackson to enroll in Chapel Hill and walk on.
“I’ve always been a UNC fan,” Jackson said. “It’s always been a goal of mine to play for UNC. I wanted to come in and be one of the best players here. And when I came in, I definitely wasn’t one of the best players here.”
With plenty of quickness and speed, Jackson is a natural fit for Fedora’s A-back role, which is often referred to simply as the inside receiver in UNC’s offense. Ahead of Jackson on the depth chart at A-back since his arrival has been Ryan Switzer and Austin Proehl.
“I think the best thing for me was playing behind Switz and Proehl, just because Switz is an All-American and Proehl is probably one of the best fundamental receivers that I’ve ever seen,” Jackson said.
Fedora told reporters Jackson’s emergence at A-back has allowed the offensive coaching staff more flexibility in utilizing Switzer and Proehl in different roles in certain concepts.
UNC’s walk-on tradition has expanded during the Fedora era. Former Tar Heel Jeff Schoettmer started 38 games at middle linebacker after walking on, while Hollins (13) and current safety Dominquie Green (26 career starts) have secured starting roles with the 2016 team. That pipeline confirms Fedora’s stated policy that anyone can see playing time if they earn it.
“It’s one thing if you come in and hear about someone who walked on seven years ago and earned a scholarship,” Jackson said. “But to have Mack here and to be able to talk to him and to be able to talk to Schoett and different guys like that, they were a huge help.”
In 2015, Jackson rented a house along with linebacker Cole Holcomb and deep snapper Kyle Murphy. All three were walk-ons until two weeks ago when each of them received the news from Fedora that they were on scholarship. Punter Joey Mangili and deep snapper Tommy Bancroft have also been placed on scholarship.
Jackson wears No. 48, which is the same jersey number his father wore nearly 50 years ago.