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August 7, 2012

Jackson motivated by doubters


Bennett Jackson hears it, sees it, understands it.

There is no anger or animosity. He realizes the perception is only natural.

But that doesn't mean he's going to accept it. In fact, he wants to change it.

Everywhere Jackson and his fellow Notre Dame defensive backs turn, there's a constant reminder that the Irish have lost their two starting cornerbacks of the last two-to-three years.

Woe is us is the common theme.

"I hear it all the time," said Jackson, the receiver-turned-cornerback who is in line to handle one of the two starting cornerback positions vacated by veterans Robert Blanton and Gary Gray. "It's all around. You try not to pay attention to it, but if everything is all around you, obviously you're going to catch notice to some."

And Jackson's reaction?

"I like it," said Jackson without the slightest bit of rancor. "People on the outside don't know what we do every day. I know what I'm capable of and what our defense is capable of. I'm just excited to show it off.

"I can understand (the concerns) exactly. But that's why I say that people on the outside don't technically know everything that we go through and all the work we've put in."

Jackson is accustomed to taking on challenging tasks. Upon his arrival from Hazlet, N.J., in 2010, Jackson was thrust into a significant role on Notre Dame's return and coverage units. He returned 29 kickoffs for a solid-if-not-spectacular 22.2 yards per attempt.

But it was his role on Notre Dame's coverage units that put him in the consciousness of Irish fans, not to mention defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. Jackson was named Notre Dame's special teams player of the year as a rookie, finishing with 10 tackles, nine of which were unassisted, as one of Notre Dame's coverage gunners.

Despite the fact that Jackson could "take the top off" just about anybody's secondary coverage with his blazing speed, he was moved to cornerback where he is now a rock-solid 6-foot-0, 185 pounds.

"Intensity, speed…I feel like I have big play potential," said Jackson, who added another 18 stops (11 unassisted) in 2011. "I'm just relying on the rest of my defense and playing the one position."

There's a maturity to the junior's demeanor, and Jackson will need every bit of it when the Irish open the 2012 season and he makes his starting debut on defense. All the physical assets a cornerback could have - and Jackson has them - aren't enough to compensate if you don't have the fundamental techniques to play the position.

Some of the most confident football players have been torn down by a couple of deep balls that have tripped the opposition's side of the scoreboard. Jackson knows the rigors of the position can strike at any time. But he's confident he's up to the task.

"I wouldn't say my technique is second nature," Jackson said. "You can always improve on it. But I'm definitely way more comfortable. It's coming easier than it did.

"You just know all the pressure is on you. You get used to it. I like having the pressure on me and knowing that that one guy is me and I'm one-eleventh of the defense. I stay humble. I go day by day. I just work towards getting better, whatever position I'm playing."

Concerns about being on the proverbial island that is the permanent home for cornerbacks everywhere?

"Honestly, I don't see too many great concerns," Jackson said. "I know I've got great safeties behind me that will help me out. I look at it as if I keep working and improving each day, we're going to have a pretty good secondary."

To be sure, it's a luxury for Jackson and another likely first-time starter at cornerback - fellow junior Lo Wood - to have veterans Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta on the back end of the defense, offering advice and stability that undoubtedly will be needed by a couple of inexperienced cornerbacks. Jackson took less than 70 snaps at cornerback last year, which is more than Wood took in 2011.

"That's one of the main keys; they run the defense," said Jackson of Slaughter and Motta. "They're the most vocal on the field. They set everything up. Having two experienced guys behind us is definitely a major bonus."

So, too, was the advantage of spending a year behind Blanton and Gray.

"I learned a lot, honestly," said Jackson of his first experience as a back-up cornerback in '11. "Blanton and Gary both had great technique and knew an extreme amount about the defense. They helped me take a major jump in my game."

But there are numerous tricks of the trade that need to be honed.

"Being fished, high lows, the receivers tricking you," said Jackson, using cornerback jargon to explain the nuances of the position.

"Fished is if there's a smash route. We like to play high to low. If they run a smash, they hit you with the flag behind you. The quarterback will try to fish you and get to the hitch, but we want to get from high to low, so they'll try to pump fake you and try to hit the high route. You don't want to play low. You want to play from the top down."

Even if Jackson hasn't gotten all the little things down yet, he believes he has the mindset for what he's about to encounter.

"As a cornerback, you've got to have a short-term memory," Jackson said. "If you make one mistake, you have to think that on the next play I'll get it back. That's basically how I look at it. If I make a mistake, I'm always saying, 'Next play, I'll make it back.' I kind of try to even myself out.

"I don't focus too much on my mistakes. I focus on them, but once I make a mistake, I make sure I correct it the next play and learn through repetition."

Jackson is ready for the 2012 season and all that it offers.

"I'm ecstatic about it," said Jackson of the upcoming season. "I just love how everybody is…I wouldn't say down, but everybody is so concerned about the inexperience of the cornerbacks and the secondary.

"Just seeing the progress we've had over the last three years and coming into this one, our summer has been ridiculous. We've been running, working harder, everybody is physically stronger, mentally tougher…Yeah, I'm really excited for the season."

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