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With all due respect to Michigan's Heisman Trophy finalist Jabrill Peppers, after serving primarily as a cornerback but also seeing time at wide receiver and as the Trojans' primary kick and punt returner the past three seasons, Jackson was arguably the most versatile and exciting player in the country. His head coach at USC, Clay Helton, likes to refer to Jackson as Superman.
It is easy to see why.
Jackson was honored with the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back as a junior, showing a penchant for creating big plays. He recorded five interceptions (among 16 passes defensed) and two forced fumbles in 2016 to go along with a very respectable 55 tackles. For as good as he was in coverage, Jackson was arguably even better as a returner and even on offense, scoring four times on returns (two off punts, two off kickoffs) and leading the Trojans with an average of 94.6 all-purpose yards per game.
As a true sophomore in 2015, Jackson was named a finalist for the Paul Hornung Award for his multi-threat ability. In 2015, Jackson was named First Team All-Pac-12 at cornerback (35 tackles, eight PBUs, and an interception he returned for a touchdown) and Second Team at returner (941 combined yards, two touchdowns) by league coaches, while catching 27 passes for 414 yards (and two touchdowns) and even running seven times for 36 yards.
Not surprisingly, Jackson was named the Trojans MVP following the season.
Of course, by banquet time, the do-everything Jackson had already moved on to another sport -- track -- where he successfully defended his title as the conference's elite long-jumper (25'-11.5") and finished second (to Arizona State's Reggie Lewis) in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.44 seconds -- .04 faster than Oregon's Olympian Devon Allen.
Like Allen, Jackson pursued his Olympic dreams, skipping spring practices in 2015 to compete in the NCAA championships. Unfortunately, he failed to qualify for Team USA in his two events, the long jump (where he finished fifth) and in the 4x100 relay (fourth).
As one would expect for any athlete this gifted, Jackson signed with the Trojans amid great fanfare. He was a consensus All-American prep, standing out on the gridiron, track and even the basketball court at Serra High School in Gardena, Calif. after growing up in Illinois.
It didn't take Jackson long to establish himself as a three-way threat for the Trojans. Overall in 2014, Jackson appeared in all 13 games, starting 10 times at cornerback and concurrently at wide receiver vs. Notre Dame. He earned Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year based on his 49 tackles (including four for losses), 10 deflections, 1 forced fumble and 1 fumble recovery. Jackson also caught 10 passes for 138 yards (13.8 avg) with three touchdowns and rushed once (five yards). Some of his most dynamic plays came on special teams, where he returned 23 kickoffs for 684 yards (29.7 avg) and two scores.
In April, as Jackson began making the rounds with NFL teams for private interviews, he said multiple teams asked him about playing both ways. Jackson believes the opportunity is legitimate.
Jackson is a remarkable athlete. That much is obvious. That said, he will likely make his most immediate impact as a returner as he remains reliant upon his incredible speed in coverage. For all of the big plays Jackson made defensively, he surrendered plenty as well, including seven passing touchdowns in 2016, alone.
STRENGTHS: The NFL will no doubt be intrigued by Jackson's versatility and pure athleticism. He should be able to make an immediate impact as a returner at the next level and perhaps earn action as a receiver, as well. Jackson's top attribute, of course, is his explosiveness. While lacking preferred size, Jackson sports a compact, athletic frame with good overall weight distribution. He has very light feet and flexible joints, which help him change directions fluidly and accelerate in a flash. Jackson is willing to take chances in coverage, showing improved route anticipation in 2016. His burst back to the ball on underneath routes forces quarterbacks to think twice about challenging him and he possesses rare recovery speed to make up for mistakes, as well as legitimate ballskills with the body control and soft hands to make difficult receptions. Though best known for his athleticism, Jackson is not simply a track star in shoulder pads, showing improved aggression and physicality as a tackler in 2016. Jackson's agility and speed make him an obvious threat to score whenever he has the ball in his hands but his vision and ability to read blocks also stand out. Jackson shows no hesitancy in running through traffic, weaving through the masses at breakneck speed and pulling away once in the open.
WEAKNESSES: Jackson has work to do as a cornerback prospect. Due to his soft hands and return ability, Jackson is a legitimate threat on defense but not an unbeatable one. Jackson struggled when matched up with fellow speedsters John Ross from Washington in 2016 and Will Fuller from Notre Dame (now with the Houston Texans) in 2015, frequently biting on underneath routes and being beaten over the top. Jackson possesses the agility and speed to handle off-man coverage but too often he plays the receiver and not the ball, failing to look back for it at the catch point. His lack of ideal size shows up most in run support, where Jackson needs to show greater intensity and consistency in fighting through blocks to be more of a factor, though he did improve in this area in 2016. He is a generally reliable open-field tackler (even flashing some physicality and quick hands to knock the ball out), but is more than willing to let teammates do the dirty work. Jackson suffered an ankle injury that knocked him out of the Rose Bowl victory over Penn State which will require a close check by team doctors at the Combine.
IN OUR VIEW: Jackson is arguably the elite athlete in the 2017 draft and his ability to create big plays as a returner and occasionally on offense only make him that much more intriguing. Jackson surrendered nearly as many big plays as he delivered as a cornerback, however, something to keep in mind given this year's exceptional class at the position. The team that drafts Jackson with the intention of him playing cornerback may need a free safety with range to help protect him.
COMPARES TO: Devin Hester, Seattle Seahawks: The potential is there for Jackson to star as a receiver and he is clearly further along as a defender -- in terms of route anticipation, run support and overall tackling ability -- than Hester ever was. Like the former Chicago Bears' legend, however, Jackson is at his best with the ball in his hands, showing terrific vision, balance and, of course, that electric elusiveness and speed.
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