When Bennett Jackson learned to go backwards, he put the whole world in front of him.
Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson makes one of his 61 tackles this season against Boston College on Nov. 10.
Jackson had a full season to learn the basics of playing defense, unlike some of the other converted wide receivers and running backs that have overrun the Notre Dame secondary this fall. The first-time starter at cornerback turned into a relative veteran this season, which opened doors for the junior at the next level.
Jackson is one of three starters in the defensive backfield this season who started his career on the other side of the ball. He came to Notre Dame as a wide receiver, but a standout special teams performance as a freshman showed his potential as a tackler and his potential to fill a position of need. The biggest hurdle to a starting job was putting himself in reverse.
“The thing that affected me the most was just my backpedal,” he said. “The smoother backpedal you have as a defensive back the quicker you’re going to be able to break on balls.”
Jackson came fully equipped with all the tools of a successful cornerback. Irish assistant Kerry Cooks called him one of the most athletic players he has coached when he got his hands on Jackson last spring. He was raw, but willing to learn.
After nearly two years of running backwards, Jackson says he’s worked out the kinks. It was an ongoing process throughout the regular season in which he and the rest of his counterparts grew on a weekly basis. With each repetition he got a little bit smoother.
“From a fundamental standpoint it’s a hard transition when he’s never played defensive back. He’s been running forward his whole life,” Cooks said. “He worked his tail off, he listened and he took coaching, which is key.”
Jackson intercepted four passes in 2012, which led the secondary and was second to all-everything linebacker Manti Te'o, who had seven. He also finished second to Te’o with 61 tackles — 44 of them on solo efforts. Backpedaling and sure tackling helped the junior keep almost everything in front of him this season.
What lies ahead now is a path to a football paycheck when he’s ready to pick it up. Without a slew of lockdown cornerbacks available in the NFL Draft this April, Jackson would have likely been selected at least near the top half of the seven-round process. He opted instead to follow in the footsteps of players like Te’o and tight end Tyler Eifert.
“Obviously I thought about it, but I don’t really want to leave college,” he said about not submitting paperwork for an NFL evaluation. “I have a good time. I feel like college football is completely different than the NFL. It’s a great opportunity, but I have a great time with all the guys and my brothers on the team.”
Jackson said watching similar decisions work out for players on this year’s team and others like 2012 first round pick Michael Floyd help convinced him to stay put. More than the ability to raise his stock he said the relationships he’s built in South Bend and a chance to network for another year kept him from seriously considering an early exit.
For now, all that lies in the foreground for Jackson is a national championship showdown with No. 2 Alabama. Most of the action on Jan. 7 promises to take place closer to the center of field. Jackson’s role will be staying mentally checked in as the Crimson Tide tries to pound away on the middle of the Irish defense. Previous experience against run-first outfits like Navy and Michigan State taught a young secondary how to stay engaged, Jackson says.
“I feel like they try to lure defensive backs to sleep with their run game and try to have them extra run support and they’ve beaten a lot of teams by just throwing it over their heads,” he said. “You understand that not every play is going to be your way. Just relax and let the game come to you. Don’ t try to force a play.”