Rookie WR Dexter Jackson was never touched on his 83-yard punt return touchdown Thursday night
A year ago this weekend, Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie wide receiver Dexter Jackson was taking part in one of the greatest upsets in college football history, as his Appalachian State Mountaineers knocked off the No. 2-ranked Michigan Wolverines on September 1, 2007.
Jackson, the Bucs' second-round pick in the 2008 NFL draft, sparked the momentous victory with three receptions for 92 yards and two touchdowns.
Fast forward a year, and Jackson is still making big plays, but the setting is slightly different. While there were actually quite a few more fans packed into Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor last fall than there were in Reliant Stadium Thursday evening, Jackson put on another show in Houston, displaying the electrifying speed that earned him his draft-day nod.
In the second quarter, Jackson fielded a Matt Turk punt at the 17-yard line and headed up the field. After one quick cut to his left, Jackson turned on the afterburners and outraced the entire Texans coverage team on his way to the score. After the game, Jackson spread the credit around to his entire blocking group.
"The special teams unit, we have been practicing a lot, working on our return game blocking," Jackson said. "We just emphasize blocking schemes and just catching the ball, seeing it first, making the first guy miss and believing in blocks and beating the cover team."
Other than his highlight performance against Michigan, Jackson spent much of last season under the national radar, simply because he attended a Football Championship Subdivision school. However, he opened a lot of eyes with his 4.37-yard 40-yard dash at the 2008 NFL Combine, tied for the second-fastest time of any wide receiver there, and that speed was on full display Thursday night.
"Once I turned the corner, I was able to use my speed to outrun everyone down the sideline," Jackson said. "I knew I could just use my speed and keep it straight up. There was no need for me to make any more cuts, so I decided to just believe in my speed and go score."
That blinding speed also impressed Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"I don't know how fast he was running but it looked like Forrest Gump to me and we're excited about it," Gruden said. "You know he's got a long way to go to figure everything out, the big picture, but he does have tremendous speed and a lot of talent and he's very confident in what he is doing. That was huge tonight."
The Bucs' long-term plan for Jackson surely includes his emergence as a deep threat in the passing attack, but for the time being his initial impact is likely to be felt in the return game. While it took him until the preseason finale to do it, making his first splash play was a bit of a relief for the rookie.
"I kind of made a couple of jokes with some guys on the team saying that this is a little confidence-builder for me, being in the league now," Jackson said. "I had to make a play and score before the real season started."
Gruden added that while there are still some decisions to be made, Jackson will certainly figure prominently into the team's plans at the kick and punt return positions.
"I don't want to make any judgments right now, but we didn't bring him in here to sit him on the sidelines," said Gruden. "We brought him in here to give us a jump in the return game. He clearly did that tonight."
Continuing to master his playbook throughout the offseason and training camp and now being able to cross his first professional touchdown off the to-do list, Jackson is focused squarely on continuing to develop and making plays when they truly matter – the regular season.
"I feel like it's real big," Jackson said. "That touchdown was an obstacle that I overcame and got out of the way. I finally can get more comfortable now that I know I've already accomplished that goal and a lot of weight is off my shoulders with the public, coaches and teammates. Now I've got a little bit of respect, so I can just build on it.
"But everything is coming along real good. More and more, week after week, I learn and get in the offense, make plays and believe in the system. There's a lot expected of you as a player here. I just like coming in to work knowing there's more and more expected out of me every day and I work hard."
And with his regular-season debut just over a week away, Jackson could barely contain his anticipation.
"I'm really excited for the regular season," Jackson said, grinning from ear to ear. "I was just telling Ryan Sims I feel like a little kid in a candy store when I'm out on the field, so it's just a dream come true."
And what does he plan to do with the memorable football he carried all the way to the end zone, the ball that could be seen tightly secured in his hands as he left the field after the game?
Well, after "taking it to the house" in Houston, Jackson says he now plans to take it to his home in Tampa.
"Hopefully it'll come back to my house and I'll put it in a frame and keep it from my first touchdown in the NFL," Jackson laughed.
It could be just the first of many footballs for his mantle.