S Dexter Jackson is expected to become a playmaker in the Bucs' secondary, and he had an interception against Cleveland during the preseason
He played for only the first three series – which accounted for just 18 plays – in the preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins, but that was a promising start for Dexter Jackson.
For many of the veteran starters on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' talent-laden defense, the Dolphins contest represented just another exhibition.
But for this young Buc defender, the game marked the start of his third pro season and his first as a starting free safety for a defense that is regarded as of one the best in the National Football League. Five days later, in his second appearance as a starter, Jackson intercepted Cleveland Browns starter Tim Couch once and had another pick reversed by penalty.
Then, last Sunday in Dallas, Jackson opened his first regular season in that starting role and became the first player in a talented Tampa Bay secondary to pick off a pass this fall.
Jackson's new starting role is one he clearly relishes, one for which he has waited patiently, and one that seems sure to stay in his hands as long as he keeps making big plays.
In his first two NFL seasons, Jackson diligently worked with former defensive backs coach Herm Edwards but mostly watched on Sundays as All-Pro strong safety John Lynch and former free safety Damien Robinson lined up in the Buccaneers secondary.
But, since being drafted in the fourth round out of Florida State in 1999, Jackson has steadily worked his way up the depth chart. He positioned himself with the first team early on during the team's 2000 training camp after Robinson and former Buc Shevin Smith suffered injuries.
Poised to become a steady contributor for the Buccaneers defense, Jackson looked as if he would make the transition from backup to starter after corralling two interceptions in last year's preseason opener against the Washington Redskins. But then the injury bug bit Jackson. He suffered a left ankle injury the following week against the Dolphins, which sidelined him until Week 4 of the regular season.
"That was tough," Jackson said. "It didn't get me down though, it just made me more focused."
Refusing to get discouraged, Jackson worked his way back onto the field, seeing action in passing situations and making his presence felt as one of the team's top special teams performers.
Most importantly, Jackson, who posted 30 tackles and 20 special teams stops in 13 games last year, showed a penchant for making big plays. He caught the coaching staff's attention and was elevated to a starting role this past offseason, after Robinson followed Edwards to the New York Jets.
"I knew I was ready because last year I played a lot and whenever I was asked to play I was able to contribute," Jackson said.
Not lacking in confidence, Jackson said he can adjust to being a starter and is eager to make an impact in the Bucs' play-making secondary unit. Although a first-year starter, Jackson's teammates share in his sentiments – agreeing that he will quickly become an asset to the secondary, not a liability.
"He's as athletic a safety as we have had," said Lynch. "He'll feel totally comfortable going over and covering someone like Randy Moss. Right after we do our shell drills he wants to run down there and cover a receiver in the one-on-one drills. That's a good quality to have."
Added CB Ronde Barber: "Dexter brings a lot to the table. He can do a lot of things. He can cover receivers in the slot. He can bump and run with those guys as well as anybody."
Jackson will line up in a secondary that features the myriad talents of Barber and a pair of Pro Bowlers in Lynch and CB Donnie Abraham.
"I have a great support system around me and I think the guys I play with are some of the top playmakers at their positions," Jackson said. "I have a lot of confidence in their ability, and I hope they feel that way about me."
After that promising 2000 season on the field, Jackson had a memorable offseason as well.
Jackson had always promised his mother, Lula Jackson, that he would earn his college degree. On April 28, the 24-year-old Jackson delivered on that promise as he walked across the stage at Florida State University's graduation to receive his degree in human and family science.
"I finally did it," Jackson said. "I came to college to get this piece of paper and to fulfill the promise to my mom. I can't explain how it felt. It was like a tingling feeling going through my whole body. I looked down at her and she had tears in her eyes."
Jackson and his mother have an extremely close bond. Together they have overcome a number of obstacles during Jackson's journey to the NFL and in the completion of his college degree.
Just eight days before Dexter turned 13, his father, Wilber "Red" Jackson, died of a heart attack at the age of 38. Two years later, while starring at Shank High School in Quincy, Fla., Jackson was faced with more adversity when his mother developed problems with her kidney.
Jackson watched his mother's health worsen. By the time he accepted a scholarship to Florida State, Lulu was receiving dialysis treatments three times a day.
In Tallahassee, Jackson's thoughts were always with his mother. He couldn't stop worrying about her, evident by the number of trips Jackson made back home to care for her.
On the field at FSU, Jackson was making tremendous progress. He made a seamless transition from quarterback to defensive back and moved up to become a starter in his junior season. Even better, on November 26, 1998, near the completion of Dexter's senior year, Lulu Jackson received a kidney and had successful surgery.
More good news followed Jackson. The day his mother was released from the hospital, Jackson and his Seminole teammates found out they would play for the national championship.
But after the national championship game, Jackson had to make another tough decision. Should he leave FSU and pursue his dream of playing in the NFL by working out in a training facility? Or should he return to school and finish the final 12 credits for his degree?
Lulu stressed how important it was for Dexter to earn his degree, but Jackson elected to move to Denver and work out at a training facility to prepare himself for the NFL combine. Tampa Bay selected him in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft and in his rookie season the team advanced to the NFC Championship.
With the Bucs advancing far into the playoffs, Jackson could not manage the time to complete his degree. But after last year's loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in the Wild Card game, Jackson registered for classes in January at FSU and finished his degree.
"I knew what I wanted to do and I had my mind set," Jackson said. "I was really focused on completing my degree and then getting ready for the upcoming season."
The Bucs' coaching staff fully understood the importance of Jackson obtaining his college degree and attending his graduation ceremony. He was granted permission to leave in the middle of Tampa Bay's three-day minicamp in April to walk across that stage.
"It's a special situation," Bucs head coach Tony Dungy said. "He went back and finished and did things the way you hope things get done. That time can only happen once in a young man's life and considering everything about his mom, it was obvious that the ceremony was very, very important in his life. It was a no-brainer for us."
Jackson is smiling more these days. His professional career is on the rise, he received his college degree and most importantly, his mother's health is not in peril.
Never lost for words, Jackson is an affable young man with an endless amount of energy. His teammates and coaches appreciate what he brings to the field and the locker room.
"He's a fun loving guy," Lynch said. "He's the comedian of our defense. You need that. You need all kinds of different personalities who can serve different roles. I think we're seeing all kinds of great play from Dexter."