Born on the Fourth of July

Lost in the shuffle of the two-deep, and discussions of fourth quarterbacks and fifth wide receivers, are players vying for little more than playing time in their last year, just a chance to make a few tackles and play a handful of downs with the game still in doubt.

One of those is defensive back Akeem Jackson, a Cancer in the Zodiac who has been anything but for West Virginia. The senior, entering his fifth year, chose the Mountaineers over home-state school Rutgers, where brothers Jamil and Malik were four-year starters. It might have been easier in the Garden State, closer to his mom and dad, Johnnie and Debroah, closer to old friends, perhaps closer to breaking into the two-deep.

But Jackson chose the All-American route, the one that subjects itself to hard work and WVU's blue-collar attitude. And while he says there's little regret in the selection, one might wonder if five years of effort, of 6 a.m. wakeups and 7 a.m. lifting, of two-a-days in the August heat and spring drills in drizzling rain, of cold Thanksgiving games and the rat-a-tat-tat of coaching rants and raves, if, after 60 months, it's worth it mainly for special teams play.

"My family told me to just stick with it and something would come out good," Jackson said." I am just dedicated. I tell the younger players to keep on trucking. These coaches, you never know, they could be testing you one day, and then the next day you are out there doing the reps. I tell them to take it a day at a time and forget about the last play. Just keep on going and that they can do it."

Jackson is a depth player, one whose extended playing time odds are slim behind fellow safeties Eric Wicks, Johnny Holmes, and Ridwan Malik, among others. He'll be inserted for the occasional snap and on the majority of special teams, one among the many Mountaineers who have added to the program without much recognition.

"Akeem Jackson has contributed on special teams for the last two or three years," defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel said. "That is where some of these kids get overlooked. They might not be in the rotation on a consistent basis defensively, but if you look at our special teams, those guys are contributing on about 25-30 plays per game."

That's a significant number, especially for snaps that can wildly swing field position, yet are too often ignored until they breakdown. Head coach Rich Rodriguez reiterated this spring that he will use his best athletes and players on the special team units and Jackson, who has enough speed to play on the outside as a bullet with the physicality to move inside as well, fits that need. He can be shuffled around, willing to be molded and morphed into whatever West Virginia wishes – the signature trait of a team player.

"Akeem has made some plays," Casteel said. "The big thing with Akeem is just consistency. That has been lacking to this point. He is a smart kid and a smart football player, but it is being able to do it on a down-in, down-out basis. There are a few things he will try to improve upon. There will hopefully be a few situations where we can fit him in as long as he continues to do what he is doing.

"He has done a pretty good job so far of doing what we are asking of him. Again, though, these guys have another five practices to do it all the time. That's what we ask of our every day players. If we are going to be a good football team we have to have that consistency and not be up and down. I think for the most part he has done that."

Jackson will likely play behind Holmes at spur. The 6-0, 180-pounder had four tackles and a fumble recovery last year for WVU. He is one of a 25-player senior class that includes Jason Colson, Jay Henry, Dan Mozes, Boo McLee and Wicks, among others – most of whom signed despite the team's 3-8 season in 2001 under a new head coach.

"I've always said the greatest thing you can do as a college football player is finish your career," Rodriguez said. "It's not getting this honor or that one. That's nice, but just to finish is the goal."

As an all-state defender at New Jersey's Elizabeth High, Jackson made 68 tackles and had nine sacks, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries as a senior. He was a first-team all-region and all-county and also rushed for 700 yards and 10 touchdowns.

"I feel like I know the defense inside out at spur and bandit," Jackson said. "I know the system. To play is just the main goal right now. I have been here for about five years, so I just want to play and help however I can. I am pretty speechless. Recognition's not my thing. I just want to play."

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