Bennett Jackson made a splash in his, and head coach's first game at Notre Dame, an Irish victory in South Bend vs. Purdue. Jackson recorded four total solo stops in kick coverage including the season's first three ST tackles with clean, one-on-one tackles of Boilermakers returners. He parlayed that effort into the program's first and now annual Special Teams Player of the Year award.
Without a catch that season as a freshman wide receiver, Jackson was moved to cornerback for his second season where he and classmate Lo Wood backed up a pair of veteran starters. For Jackson, the move has paid off entering 2012, but it wasn't without hiccup.
"I wasn't taken aback, but at first I was a little confused. I didn't know if I was just being jerked around," said Jackson of the move from offense to defense. "But after talking to Coach Kelly about it, talking to my position coaches and seeing the reasoning, I was actually excited because I've always enjoyed the physical part of the game."
Jackson will have a chance to display that natural physicality this fall as the team's unquestioned starter at boundary cornerback.
"Teams nowadays put their best guy into the boundary so he has to be the matchup guy; the guy that's going to be able to play man-to-man," said cornerbacks coach Kerry Cooks of the position's requirements. "He also has to be a little more physical because you get a lot of (running plays) into that short side of the field. So he has to be able to come up and force the edge in Cover 2."
Jackson will endure trial-by-fire in his first career start, a Week One matchup with Navy in Dublin. The Midshipmen bring the most disciplined and polished rushing attack the Irish will face this fall. Jackson's lack of experience isn't a concern to those that matter most.
"We feed off being guys not having much experience," he said of his fellow corner competitor Wood. "We want to work on being ready and in the right position when the time comes."
That time first came for Jackson after the mid-point of 2011 when he began to get a taste of the rotation on the corner.
"I saw a different approach in probably the last six games of the season," said Cooks this spring of Jackson's ascent. "He started to practice like he was a No. 1 towards the back half (of 2011). Now he's continued to carry that attitude. Continued to raise his game."
Jackson relishes the chance to be part of a new era on the corner for the Irish defense.
"I see it as motivation. The spotlight on you makes you want to work that much harder," he said. "I take it day-by-day in each practice. If I can get better individually I can bring the unit up by one piece.
"As you get experience you stop thinking, it becomes second nature," he continued. "Let me read the receiver more, when is he coming up? When is he stopping in his break, when can I jump the play? That's where I am now, speeding up the process to transfer my energy forward.
One of the team's fastest players, Jackson believes he can now play fast because he understands the pace of the college game far better than in his sterling debut.
"My first game, my energy level was so turned up that I was all over the place," he said. "Getting a piece here and piece there, you get a better understanding for game tempo."
Educated OpinionJoining Jackson in an increased role this fall are e a collection of receivers looking to replace an all-time program great, Michael Floyd. Jackson has seen improvement across the line of scrimmage from spring practice through four days of August camp.
"I go up against Goody a lot of the time, he looks a lot stronger and smoother," said Jackson of spring offensive standout John Goodman. "T.J. (Tai-ler Jones) looks great…honestly the young guys look good. We have a lot more speed; the freshmen brought in speed. I think they'll be pretty strong as a group after a few more camp practices.
"Among the freshman, Davonte (Neal) has some speed to him," Jackson continued. "He has a nice mental focus toward things. Chris Brown is a long, lanky kid. Once he gets going he's (moving). He and Ferg (Justin Ferguson) brought some nice speed to the unit."
Still, Jackson believes its a pair of veterans that will set the pace.
"I would say Goody, just from going up against him a lot and seeing the transition he had over the last year," Jackson offered when pressed to name a player that stood out the most. "He gets off the line easier, he catches the ball better. He's mentally tougher. He and T.J. probably stand out the most."
The former pass-catcher knows what to look for from the position, even if he no longer yearns to play it.
"It's not just about you, but what position will better help the team," said Jackson of his move across scrimmage, one made since by classmate Austin Collinsworth (S to WR), sophomore Cam McDaniel (RB to CB), and true freshman Keivarae Russell (RB to CB). Once someone gets more comfortable, they wind up being happy that they moved."
Especially when it results in a position of leadership and a starting role, one with great expectations, and limited margin for error.