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Player Projection: Bennett Jackson

This article is a part of our 2012 Player Projections series. During the summer months will be evaluating each player on Notre Dame’s projected two-deep depth chart — reviewing their careers to this point and discussing expectations for the year to come.

Bennett Jackson — CB
Height: 6-0 Weight: 185
Experience: 26 appearances, 0 starts
Stats: 32 career kickoff returns for 645 yards (22.2 average) and 20 tackles on special teams.

Ever since Bennett Jackson raced 43 yards on his first college kickoff return as a freshman in 2010 (vs. Boston College), it was evident the Hazlet, N.J., native had the athleticism to make an impact for years to come in South Bend. Special teams became his initial niche (he was named the squad’s Special Teams Player of the Year as a rookie) while head coach Brian Kelly and the rest of the Fighting Irish staff pondered the possibilities for the former high school wideout.

Jackson, a junior heading into the 2012 campaign, had the chops to continue at receiver after hauling in 40 catches for 729 yards as a senior at Raritan High, where he also dabbled in the defensive backfield (four interceptions his final year). His nine tackles on special teams as a freshman underscored his ability to make plays on defense and ultimately led to the move to cornerback in 2011, though with two veteran starters in seniors Gary Gray and Robert Blanton, Jackson’s focus was still on special teams (11 tackles). Jackson recorded 17 tackles as a sophomore while apprenticing at corner, a move that immediately paid off this spring when Notre Dame found itself with just four scholarship players at that position after early enrollee Tee Shepard left the program unexpectedly.

2012 Role

There’s a big difference between special teams and the pressure that accompanies being an every-down player responsible for shutting down wide receivers. Jackson’s perspective from his past experience as a receiver undoubtedly is useful, but the transition still carries with it a large learning curve.

“I feel like I have big shoes to fill with Gary [Gray] and Blanton gone,” Jackson said this spring. “I’d say my mindset is a little different because last spring I had never played cornerback. Now I’m getting a feel for the game and everything, and I know what it takes to succeed.”

He feels as if he’s improved when it comes to squeezing the receiver, finishing plays and having a sense of urgency.

“I have more of a feeling to go for the ball at the end of routes,” Jackson said of his wideout instincts. “I’ve always got my eyes on the ball and try to make a play at the end.”

That’s music to Notre Dame fans’ ears after many hair-pulling moments last season when Gray had trouble getting turned around to locate the ball, most notably in the final seconds in a loss at Michigan. It’s a good place to start for Jackson as a first-time starter.

What’s A Good Season?

Having two experienced safeties in Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta is invaluable, and it should allow Jackson to play a little looser at corner. Jackson is a strong open-field tackler, has a nose for the football, the hands to make a good play a great one and the speed and elusiveness from his time returning kicks to turn any interception into a long reversal. He’ll have to accept the fact, however, that he can’t go for the highlight-reel play every single time. Simply making sure he keeps his man in front of him is the first step. Once he grows comfortable with his new role, heroics will come. For now, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco just needs consistency.

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