S Dexter Jackson has prepared for two years to become a starter on the Bucs' defense
It's the second day of Dexter Jackson's first season as a starter on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense, and Jackson isn't there. Strong safety John Lynch's running mate on the free side are Eric Vance and Than Merrill, and that teasing voice in the defensive backfield that was so prominent during last year's practices is missing on Saturday.
Jackson rejoined the team on Sunday, the third of three days of the team's post-draft mini-camp. He missed two of the five practices, but he's not concerned.
After all, he's waited three years. One more days won't matter.
Besides, Jackson had an extremely good excuse. Head Coach Tony Dungy gladly excused Jackson from the proceedings on Saturday so that the third year safety from Florida State could attend to an important matter: his graduation from FSU.
What a spring for Jackson. At the same time he was putting the finishing touches on his long-time dream of a college education, the high-energy safety was graduating into a larger role on the Buccaneers' defense.
As expected, the Buccaneers were unable to pursue Damien Robinson, the team's starter at free safety the past two years, as aggressively as was necessary to keep the fifth-year veteran. Robinson, who had a career-best six interceptions last season while starting all 16 games, had served the team well, but the available free agency budget was used mostly on QB Brad Johnson, DE Simeon Rice, CB Ronde Barber and T Jerry Wunsch. The loss of such valued veterans as Robinson, Frank Middleton and Pat Hape were unfortunate but not unexpected by-products of the free agency system and the decisions it forces teams to make.
Robinson's loss became official just before the draft when he signed on with the Jets, whose new head coach, Herman Edwards, had been his position coach with the Buccaneers for four seasons. What had been assumed would happen upon Robinson's departure was official: Jackson became a starter.
So Jackson showed up on Sunday after his big day and rejoined Lynch in the starting unit. Not bad – one day after graduation and he's already got a full-time job. How many of us wish we were that lucky?
But Jackson has been preparing for this role for some time, so he shouldn't have a difficult adjustment. In fact, he says his preparation will remain the same.
"I don't go in any differently," said Jackson on Sunday. "That's the thing you work hard for, eventually becoming a starter. Last year, I showed flashes of becoming a starter, and the hard work just paid off. This year, I worked even harder while I was in school. I'm pretty much prepared to take my new role on and help the team out."
Indeed, Jackson's strong play in practice earned him periods of playing time in relief of Robinson last fall, and the coaching staff's confidence in him grew quickly. At times during the long season, it was the second-team defense, led by the brash Jackson and rookie LB Nate Webster, that kept the intensity up during mid-week practices. The unit took to their duties competitively, but nobody on the team took offense. Jackson doesn't see any attitudes toward him changing now that he's running with the first team.
"They don't approach me any differently," said Jackson of his teammates. "We're a team, and everyone supports one another, makes sure they play well. Everybody's very supportive, everybody still talks to me the same way and we still have fun together. It's just the same as it always was."
It is the staff's hope that Jackson will prove to be a play-maker, an element they would dearly love to have at free safety. In his limited playing time last season, Jackson pitched in with 30 tackles and five passes defensed. He was also big on special teams: 20 stops and a fumble recovery.
He'll certainly get every opportunity to prove that he is a playmaker this fall. The Buccaneers' defense, while sagging a bit in the yardage rankings last season, finally turned up the dial on turnovers and scoring, as Dungy had long hoped it would. With the team's pass rush likely to be even more intense this year than last, when it set a team record with 55 sacks, it's likely that the secondary will have increased opportunities for takeaways.
Jackson also has to take on a new role as mentor, even if he is in just his third season. The team's fourth-round draft pick in 1999, Jackson is now one of the elder statesmen in the back end of the secondary. Three safeties - Merrill, John Howell and David Gibson – have all been drafted in the last two seasons by the Buccaneers.
"I have to do that also," Jackson agreed. "I learned from guys like Lynch and Damien Robinson. They helped me out, so now it's my time to pass it on. That's what makes this a great team. If somebody goes down, somebody else steps in and the train keeps going on."
Jackson also wanted to ensure that his own life would keep moving forward once his NFL career has concluded. Thus, the focus on finishing his degree, which he earned in family and child sciences. He's already made one family very happy.
"It's great," he said. "It's an awesome feeling. It's something I always wanted to do and my mom always wanted to see me accomplish. That's a big step for me."
So, while his teammates were locking horns for on Saturday, Jackson was part of an even bigger crowd. His boundless energy actually worked against him a bit during the ceremony.
"It was really long," said Jackson with a laugh. "I've never sat in one place for so long without moving. But I really enjoyed it. I will always have that. Now, when football is over with, I have something to fall back."