The initial tear in Bennett Jackson’s right shoulder occurred sometime during his sophomore year when the Irish cornerback was still mostly a special teams mainstay. The real problems didn’t start until the following spring.
Senior cornerback Bennett Jackson said he played tentative at times last season while battling a torn labrum in his shoulder.
During the spring is when Jackson’s shoulder started to slide in and out of its socket at times during practice. The shoulder usually slipped back into place on its own. But for the next few minutes Jackson’s arm would be dead weight, numb until he was able to get the blood flowing properly again. By then it was too late to do anything about it. Notre Dame’s secondary needed Jackson, a first-time starter, to fill the thin-and-getting-thinner cornerback position.
“I couldn’t get the surgery,” Jackson said. “I would have had to sit out basically, and I couldn’t really do that.”
The junior started all 13 games last season while trying not to reveal the favor with which he treated his right side. He couldn’t sleep on the shoulder. He couldn’t properly get his hands over his head to catch a ball at its highest point. He couldn’t jam a wide receiver with his full strength for fear that it might jar the ball-and-socket joint out of whack again.
When his shoulder did pop loose during the course of the game, Jackson rarely had time to let the feeling return to his arm before he was back on the field.
“It’d be numb for a few minutes, but you don’t have a few minutes to wait so that’s something that was there mentally,” he said. “I don’t think it held me back too much really. I’m excited to see when I get to 100 percent how it plays out this season.”
When Jackson does return to full strength — he expects to be fully cleared by doctors by the end of May — he will make the Irish secondary as deep as it has been under the current coaching regime. He, sophomore KeiVarae Russell and senior Lo Wood provide experience for a growing group of cornerbacks that assistant coach Kerry Cooks feels comfortable putting in the lineup.
“It’s been a blessing for me,” Cooks said. “I’ve always felt like since I’ve been here my first few years I’ve been kind of short-handed at the cornerback position. But this year, finally, I feel like I’ve got some depth. Not just depth for bodies, but guys that can go and play and you feel okay with them being out there on the field.”
Cooks said early in the spring that he hoped to be able to open the playbook for his cornerbacks a little more this fall and use more nickel and dime packages. Jackson, who finished third on the team with 65 tackles despite his injury, gives the Irish a dependable option on one side of the field that allows them to test young players in other areas.
The New Jersey native converted from wide receiver after his freshman season at Notre Dame. Since then, he has been equipped with the athleticism to play, according to Cooks. The coach said he just needs to work on the small nuances of playing defensive back to improve. As long as he remains healthy, the physicality and dependability should increase during his senior season.
Jackson had surgery to repair the labrum this winter. He finally had enough time to rehab and the stretching and strength-building exercises meant to break up scar tissue and patch the problem were losing their effect. He is still pushing to return to 100 percent and didn’t participate in contact drills during the spring. In the meantime, Jackson was able to spend most of the past month absorbing 15 practices from a coach’s perspective as much as a player’s.
“I see it a lot more. I see a lot more things on the sideline,” Jackson said about his role this spring. “I can’t really do too much physically, so I’ve tried to add myself in as that extended coach.”
Jackson helped younger players like Russell and Josh Atkinson pick apart their games during the spring. In doing so, he was able to better understand the nuances that Cooks was telling him he needed to improve.
Even last year as a first-year starter, Jackson was one of the more vocal members of the Notre Dame and locker room as a whole. He said he’s enjoying his new role as a team leader. Not much has changed in his approach, except he knows now that he’s expected to be that guy.
“I know that coach and the guys are looking up to me and there isn’t that guy for them to look up to,” Jackson said. “There isn’t that guy for me to look up to. So I kind of just try to lead by example. I don’t change too much about my game.”