Second-year S Tanard Jackson wants his impressive rookie season to be just the beginning of a long and fruitful career
A work in progress? Coming off an outstanding rookie season in 2007 and preparing for his second go-round as the team's starting free safety, Tanard Jackson isn't resting on his laurels
Looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting free safety – the 6-0, 200-pound Tanard Jackson – it might be hard to imagine that such a fast, athletic and hard-hitting football player could be frightened by something as relatively harmless as a motion picture.
"I don't like horror movies," Jackson said with a laugh after practice Thursday. "I'm not a fan, especially watching them alone. 'Halloween,' with Michael Myers, especially. When I was little, he got to me and it kind of stuck with me."
Then again, it might also be hard to believe that one of the league's rising young stars at the safety position didn't even play that position in college. Jackson actually played cornerback all four of his years at Syracuse, but the Bucs' staff saw something in him on tape – a less frightening motion picture, if you will – and while coaching at the 2007 Senior Bowl that convinced them he could be an outstanding NFL safety.
Boy, were they right. Ecstatic to nab Jackson in the fourth round of the 2007 NFL Draft, the Bucs immediately inserted him into the starting lineup at free safety, where he opened all 16 games last season and flourished.
Despite the whirlwind of events that saw him enter the NFL, go through a position change and take over as a full-time starter, all within his first year in the league, Jackson is still hungry to continue his development. His evolution from collegiate cornerback to star NFL safety is ongoing, he says.
"I'm a lot more comfortable this year," Jackson said. "This is an opportunity of a lifetime coming into my second year and being in this position, coming in as a starter and knowing what to expect a little more and just being comfortable back there with these veteran players.
"But it's always a work in process – it's never going to be complete. You always learn new things from the players I play with and the coaches who coach me up. There's always new things to learn and I'm continuing to do that."
As a rookie, Jackson tallied 78 tackles, two interceptions, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries and 12 passes defensed. Solid numbers for a rookie, certainly, but Jackson said he focused on one specific skill this offseason that he hopes will land him on the stat sheet much more frequently in 2008.
"Ball skills, first and foremost, are what I focused on in the offseason and I've continued to focus on throughout the preseason," Jackson said. "That's how you make plays on the ball as a safety, is to have good ball skills."
Surely the loudest voice in Jackson's ear urging him to make more splash plays has been the Bucs' vociferous defensive backs coach, Raheem Morris. Jackson gave Morris loads of credit for helping spur his development, even before Jackson officially joined the Bucs.
"Raheem is a tremendous help," Jackson said. "I got the opportunity to meet him at the Senior Bowl and learned a lot from him in that week. It was a great opportunity to be drafted by the Buccaneers and play for him. I've learned a lot."
Morris' impact is evident, but Jackson's most frequent coaching tips often come in the heat of battle from his teammates in the secondary. Veterans such as cornerback Ronde Barber and fellow safety Jermaine Phillips – and even some former Bucs defensive stars – have been the single most important influence on him thus far, Jackson said.
"That's probably the biggest contribution to my success so far here, the veteran players," Jackson said. "I'm definitely going to continue to learn from them, even from ones who left, like Brian Kelly, and tapes of John Lynch and Dexter Jackson. The ones before me are the ones I'm learning from."
As Jackson continues his progress, the Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden and the rest of the coaching staff have taken notice. For instance, earlier this month during training camp, Gruden offered up this bit of praise for his two starting safeties.
"We have very good safeties here that can cover grass in a hurry," Gruden said. "That's a strength of our football team right now. Phillips is playing great and Tanard Jackson, I think, could be one of the game's best safeties. I believe that."
Becoming one of the game's great safeties is exactly the goal Jackson has in mind as he heads into his second season in the league. That, along with obtaining a certain piece of jewelry similar to the one some of the former Bucs he idolizes are proud to display.
"I'm just going to continue to keep that in mind that it's still a work in process and it's not complete," Jackson said. "We still have a goal in mind and that's to win the Super Bowl. My level of play will determine that.
"I would definitely like to win the Super Bowl, first and foremost, but everybody wants to see themselves in Hawaii at the Pro Bowl someday. If that's the opportunity in front of me, I'm definitely going to try to go for that."