Dexter Jackson had more than his share of work during summer practices, lining up at both corner and safety
As the 2000 season approaches, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers believe that second-year player Dexter Jackson is in a position to help them. Make that two positions.
Drafted out of Florida State in the fourth round last year, Jackson made the team as a free safety, though he played almost exclusively on special teams as a rookie. This spring, enough was thought of Jackson's athletic ability that he was given an extended look at cornerback while still sharpening his safety skills. That's a lot to ask of a young player…very few athletes can make it in the NFL at one position, let alone two.
And how has the experiment gone? Well, Defensive Backs Coach Herman Edwards spoke with Buccaneers.com at length last week about his entire secondary cadre, which includes one Pro Bowler (S John Lynch) and another player that probably should have been in the all-star game (CB Donnie Abraham). Yet he reserved some of his most optimistic words for Jackson.
"I think Dexter has really kind of jumped out on us and become the third safety," said Edwards. "If we went into a game and somebody got hurt between John and Damien (Robinson), we'd put Dexter in there right now. He's a guy that's grown up a little bit, he's matured more than he was last year, he's paying more attention to detail. And he's really athletic. He's a guy that's a 'disaster' corner for us...he's played some corner for us this spring, also, and he has some ability to cover guys."
It's good to have a coach that believes in your abilities, but it's also important for a player to buy into the role he's been assigned. So how does Jackson feel about his spring of splitting time at two spots, even when it appears that he will now be used primarily at safety?
"It's been great," said Jackson. "I think by playing free (safety) and playing corner, I'm seeing the quarterback open up and throw the different routes. I'm picking up the outs, the hitches, whatever, just by reading his shoulders. I didn't have all the tools to be a corner (when he began practicing there), but by now knowing the game and recognizing the quarterback's strengths and weaknesses, I think that will help me out playing corner and safety.
"Every position you play helps you on the other ones, because they complement each other."
It's not like Jackson is new to this concept of switching positions. As a prep star playing in the shadow of Florida State's Doak Campbell Stadium, Jackson manned the quarterback position at Shanks High School well enough to earn a spot on Florida's Class 4-A first-team all-star squad. He traveled just a few miles to begin his college career as a Seminole, but he made a longer journey from quarterback to defensive back as a freshman. He was immediately good enough to earn playing time in all 11 games in his first year, but he still saw the majority of his action on special teams. He was an all-conference pick at safety two years later. That route prepared him for what he has faced in the NFL.
"I had to start on special teams (in Tampa)," said Jackson, "but that's just like at Florida State, where I had to make my name on special teams first, make big plays, and eventually work my way up. I was talking to Derrick Brooks, and he said when he first came in, he had to play special teams. (Former Seminoles) Brooks and Shevin Smith are a big part of my getting better here, they help me out and talk to me a lot about what I need to do. I'm happy to be here."
Though his quarterback role was abandoned early at Florida State, Jackson believes he is still reaping the benefits from having played that position. "I've been playing this game since I was a little kid," he said. "I played quarterback in high school and somewhat in college, and that helped me out, too. I understand the game better because of that. I just know the game. Playing quarterback, you know what the offense does, how it sets up plays. That's another plus in my repertoire."
Jackson's repertoire may be growing in 2000. Edwards believes he has one of the best starting safety tandems in the league, but he is also comfortable with the depth Jackson provides should an injury keep either Lynch or free safety Damien Robinson out of the lineup for any period of time. According to Edwards, Jackson brings the potential for big plays to the secondary, something the Bucs' already stellar defense has been searching for more of ever since Head Coach Tony Dungy's arrival in 1996. At the very least, Jackson should continue to provide big plays on special teams, where he ranked fifth on the team in tackles as a rookie with 17.
Jackson, of course, hopes for a more expanded role, either now or in the future. With one NFL year under his belt, he now feels quite a bit more prepared to contribute in 2000.
"I've improved a lot since last year, just by getting the experience, being here and learning it," said Jackson. "At Florida State, we had a defense that I had to learn and get installed in my mind, then I came here to Tampa and had to learn a new defense. You have to get comfortable; once you feel comfortable you play better. And I feel a lot more comfortable."
As do the Buccaneers.