Second-round pick Dexter Jackson saw his first practice in the NFL with the Buccaneers on Friday at the team's rookie mini-camp. The Appalachian State product was part of a group of five receivers that were working out. The 5-foot-9, 182-pound Jackson has exceptional speed (4.35 40-yard dash). He was able to use that in his first NFL practice.
"It was a dream come true and a little overwhelming," said Jackson about his first practice. "The playbook and all that, but I'm just excited to be a part of the NFL. I felt like it was pretty good. I caught a lot of passes and being out there, and making plays. I'll learn more from watching film with [wide receivers] Coach Mann. I feel like that's going to be good."
In his career he played in 55 games (25 starts). Jackson made 110 receptions for 1,846 yards (16.8 avg) and 17 touchdowns, ranking fourth in school history. The majority of Jackson's production came from the slot. In Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden's offense, often times receivers run slants out of the slot, a route that Jackson had lots of success with in college. Coming from Division I-AA Appalachian State some have labeled Jackson as a project at receiver.
"I don't," said Jackson about whether he is a project at the NFL level. "I feel like it's my offense and if we're in a two-receiver set, I can be one of the receivers out there. There were a lot of receivers that played at bigger schools that went after me. I don't feel like it's me as an individual. I feel that it's about whether you're a fit in the offense you run."
Coach Gruden saw that there would be a transition for players from less prominent football programs.
"It's going to be a work in progress, but you see athletic ability," Gruden said. "We've got a long way to go – that's about the best way I can sum it up. But work will get done and it will take some time. They're two good kids; I think they will continue to improve."
However, Gruden also was not eliminating Jackson from the competition at wide receiver due to his small school roots.
"I don't know about the receiving corps, what the logjam is," said Gruden. "We've got to establish ourselves at that position and it's wide open right now. Joey Galloway obviously is the starter at split end but we've got a lot of competition everywhere else."
Jackson will first have the challenge of digesting Gruden's playbook in order to fit in well with Tampa Bay's offense and see the field at wide receiver.
"It's a little complicated, but I feel if you do the things he wants you to do it's going to benefit the team. I feel like I can easily progress and learn from the veterans at receiver," said Jackson of Gruden's offense. "I feel like it will be a lot to learn, but it won't be too hard because I know that I will be on the field playing special teams, and helping my team."
At Appalachian State, Jackson was used as a returner in addition to wide receiver. He brought back 35 kickoffs for 619 yards (17.7 avg.). As a punt returner Jackson fielded 93 punts returning them for 837 yards (9.0 avg.) and two touchdowns. Jackson relishes the opportunities to be involved on special teams.
"If I'm having a bad day at receiver I can just help my team on the punt return or kick return unit and make up for it," said Jackson of playing special teams. "With my speed it creates mismatches for us to take advantage of."
In his senior season Jackson caught 30 passes for 688 yards (22.9 avg.) and eight touchdowns. In Appalachian State's upset win at Michigan Jackson started.
"I feel like it really helped kick start this whole journey for me as a person," said Jackson of the Michigan game. "I feel like that game really put me on the NFL's radar as far as ‘lets check him out.' That game put my school and me on the map. My confidence went through the roof. I felt like if I can make plays in this game, why not the rest of the season?"
Not only was Jackson inspired from his performance against Michigan, he also got a vote of confidence from his future head coach prior to them being united in the NFL Draft.
"He just told me that I have juice. He told me to keep working hard and he's going to make plays for me," Jackson said of Gruden. "When I first came down here on April 6 for my visit he told me I can make it at this level. That really inspired me to just come in and do the best I can do."
As for Gruden's intense style of coaching, Jackson does not seem to be worried about that.
"Yeah I love it," said Jackson. "I know he's going to get on me, but he understands that I'm working hard and making plays. I'll make mistakes but I'll learn from them. I know he's going to get on us, but he told us he would and to come back with some sugar. That's always good."
Over the past three seasons coach Gruden and the Buccaneers have had a lot of success with veteran receiver Galloway. With the drafting of a player with similar attributes, Tampa Bay is hoping to maintain that production beyond the retirement of Galloway. Jackson thinks that smaller receivers like Galloway and Jackson can produce well for NFL teams.
"Yeah I like the small receivers. That's whom I see myself like. Steve Smith, Santana Moss, Roscoe Parrish, little receivers who can make a big impact. I feel like I can be on the outside in the slot one-on-one then I can use my speed to my advantage," said Jackson.
Jackson should have every opportunity to make the same impact on the pro level as those players. With his status as a second-round pick he is all but assured of making the team's roster. While he has more security, Jackson also has more pressure to perform.
"For me going in the second round there's a lot of pressure, so I wanted to come in and show them what I can do," said Jackson " I'm just looking forward to meeting the whole team and getting a feel for it and competing, but its a good thing. I told [Coach Gruden] coming from App. State I got to work as hard as the next man. If I go down there's not somebody that can replace me. I told [Coach Gruden] that just because I'm here I am going to work hard and not just be happy to be here."
One practice into his professional career, Jackson seems to be very excited for what lies ahead.
"When my team gets here I'm looking forward to learning from Joey, Mike Clayton and the rest of the guys. I'm glad to be here and I'm going to work hard."
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