Would you believe the most eye-opening offensive player on the first day of Buccaneers was wide receiver Dexter Jackson?
With apologies to rebuilt running back Cadillac Williams, who shrugged off a torn patellar injury in January to look sharp on the first day of training camp, Jackson gets the nod for being the biggest surprise on Saturday as last year’s second-round pick is trying to do his best to shrug off the bust label he wore through a disastrous rookie season in 2008.
Jackson certainly shrugged off those pesky cornerbacks on Saturday, blowing past cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Elbert Mack on slant passes in 1-on-1’s and diving past cornerback Kyle Arrington and safety C.J. Byrd for a touchdown in the morning practice, or diving for a 20-yard sideline grab or racing 40 down the sidelines for a bomb in the night practice at Raymond James Stadium.
The one-time afterthought at the receiver position had himself a heck of a day, making more big plays over the span of two practices than he might have made over two weeks worth of practices during his rookie campaign, which consisted of a failed attempt as a punt and kick returner and less than a handful of snaps on offense through the first seven games of the year before Jackson was inactive for the rest of the season.
“I did have a good day, but I’ve been working hard since January,” Jackson said. “Having a new coaching staff is like having a new chance. Coach Raheem Morris always tells us to have a plan for every day and make it work. That’s what I’m doing. I’m staying humble and trying to help the team. I feel like good things happen to people who are patient and help their teammates. I’m leaving what happened last year behind me, learning from my mistakes and I’m trying to get better.”
Jackson’s mistake last year largely came from not wanting to get hit. Cowardice is perhaps the biggest on-field sin in the NFL, and Jackson looked like a sinner last year as he would slide, unnecessarily at times, to avoid contact on punts and kicks. The Appalachian State product drew criticism by fans and the media, including Pewter Report, and earned dubious nicknames like “Slip-N-Slide” and “No Traction Jackson.”
However, the effort Jackson displayed on Saturday says a lot about his desire to change the way people think about him and the way he plays football.
“I was not very comfortable last year as a receiver and I didn’t feel like I could show the team what I could do. My agent told me to go out and compete like I did at the East-West Game and the Senior Bowl and compete,” Jackson said. “You’re going to get hit. It’s football. Just have fun and don’t worry about it. When you worry about it is when you are going to get hurt.
“I feel more physical because the guys like me that don’t have a locked (roster) spot, they have to play on special teams. That’s what has helped me – just hitting guys and getting hit and changing my mentality. I’m having fun. I’ve had to learn how to take a hit. It’s a tough thing to do at this level, but it has made me a better person – not just to silence the critics.”
What Jackson is referring to is the fact that he didn’t take many hits at Appalachian State, which was primarily a running football team. When the Mountaineers did throw the ball, teams were typically caught off guard and Jackson was running slant passes and go routes in 1-on-1 situations and was usually wide open due to his 4.3 speed. Jackson only had 110 catches for 1,846 yards and 17 touchdowns in his four-year career at Appalachian State. By comparison, Philadelphia receiver Jeremy Maclin had 104 catches last season at Missouri.
“The last time I really got hit was back in high school,” Jackson said. “I never really got hit at Appalachian State. I just blew by guys with my speed. The type of plays and routes I ran in college were such that if I was open, I was going to score. It has taken me some time to adjust to the NFL and the mentality you need to have here. My whole mindset is to learn from Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant and to have confidence. I want to show Coach Morris that he can have confidence in me and I can just continue.”
Clayton, a player whose NFL career has gone through its own trials and tribulations, has taken Jackson under his wing and told him to stay positive and play a more physical brand of football in 2009.
“Michael Clayton has been a great role model for me,” Jackson said. “He’s told me to keep my head up and to play like every play is your last. I have to build this thing one day at a time. I had a good day, but I have to have another good day tomorrow and keep building. I’m having fun and I’m letting the game come to me. It’s a good feeling because nobody likes things that are handed to you. You can’t be complacent. I want to just keep getting better every day through camp and we’ll see what happens.”
Despite Jackson’s solid 2009 training camp debut, he certainly didn’t make the team on Saturday. He will have to have several more eye-opening practices and string them along consistently. In order to be able to join the likes of Bryant and Clayton in Tampa Bay’s stable of receivers this year, Jackson will also have to perform well in the preseason as a receiver as Pro Bowler Clifton Smith appears to have a permanent lock down on the starting kickoff and punt return job that was once Jackson’s.
The good news for the 5-foot-9, 182-pound receiver is that Jeff Jagodzinski’s new vertical passing game is better suited for Jackson’s skills than Jon Gruden’s horizontal-based West Coast offense.
“This new offense has some similarities to what we did at App State,” Jackson said. “It puts me in good situations where I can get downfield and avoid the real physical stuff underneath. This team wants me to be an outside vertical threat, but if it takes me going inside and getting hit across the middle to show them that I can do that and to make this team, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m ready for that now.”
It appeared Tampa Bay’s young group of cornerbacks – with the exception of 34-year old Ronde Barber and 28-year old Torrie Cox – weren’t ready for the Bucs receivers on the first day of camp. The receivers beat the corners like a drum in the morning practice and fared nearly as well in the night practice at Raymond James Stadium.
“Our receiving corps is pretty good,” Jackson said. “Coach Jags has always said that the route tree that we have in this offense has always allowed us to go out and play football and not have to think so much. We don’t have to spend hours and hours studying all these plays that we’re never going to run. We’ve got a more limited number of plays and we run them and go out and compete. I feel like that helps us. We do watch a lot of film with (wide receivers) Coach (Richard) Mann and then we come out here and have some fun.
“We’re leaning on Ronde and Aqib, but Elbert Mack had two interceptions today and he’s coming on. Remember that this is a new transition for them with this bump-and-run style defense being singled up on our receivers. It’s a lot of wear and tear on your body. The man coverage puts them out on an island, but it does the same thing for us. There’s nobody that helps them and they have to read and cover. We have to be able to get open ourselves without much help and be able to develop moves to shake these corners and get them off our tail.”
Jackson was shaking defensive backs on Saturday as if he was trying to shake all the negatives from his reputation.
“This offseason, he’s been spending a lot of time out there catching balls and running routes. You can see it,” said Bucs reserve safety Donte Nicholson, whose NFL career endured a rough start, too. “These last OTAs he made a real big improvement. He’s a different receiver now. He’s definitely a force now. When you see him out there, he’s a guy you definitely have to recognize and know where he is on the field. It’s amazing what he’s done in one year with his turnaround. It’s an exciting thing to watch because so much was expected out of him last season, but he’s giving it to us this season. It’s a great thing to see.”
Last year when Jackson hit the ground, fans groaned. This year, as he laid out for passes and hits the turf, fears cheered – at least for one day.