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Sports >  WSU football

From Netflix to SC Top 10: Breakout season from Washington State’s Calvin Jackson Jr. no surprise to Last Chance U coach

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 7, 2021

When ESPN’s SportsCenter Top 10 segment counted down to its final play Saturday night, viewers may have needed to perform a double-take when the footage showed a Washington State receiver making a leaping, gyrating, one-handed circus catch near the back of the end zone at Cal’s Memorial Stadium.

If the national audience was tempted to tap the rewind button, it’s either because the grab was worth watching between two and a dozen times, or because they had to make sure it was that Calvin Jackson Jr. who made the play that was determined to be the most impressive across the sporting world by ESPN’s flagship show.

Saturday signified Jackson SportsCenter Top 10 debut, but it wasn’t the first time he did something that was broadcast to hundreds of thousands of televisions across the country. Jackson’s name may still ring a bell for devoted fans of the “Last Chance U” Netflix documentary series, which in 2017 spotlighted the receiver and his Independence (Kansas) Community College football team.

A handful of Jackson’s highlight grabs as a sophomore at ICC were scattered throughout the eight-episode series that premiered in July 2018 as the receiver was making his move from junior college life in the rural Midwest to Power Five football in the Palouse region of Eastern Washington.

Three years later, a broader audience has followed Jackson as he’s emerged as one of the Pac-12’s most productive receivers – a development that hasn’t been startling for Jason Brown, the former ICC coach who gained national fame for his role in the widely acclaimed Netflix series.

“You can tell, he is an NFL talent and there’s no question about it,” Brown told The Spokesman-Review on Sept. 24, prior to WSU’s games at Utah and Cal. “He’s just got to get out there and never leave the field. He can’t get hurt, he can’t get injured. He’s just got to stay focused and he’ll be fine.”

Brown’s unapologetic personality and unorthodox coaching style made him one of the most prominent and popular characters in the six-year history of the Netflix show, which recently moved into the junior college basketball space after spending five seasons following the football programs at East Mississippi Community College, Independence and Laney College in Oakland, California. WSU defensive tackle Amir Mujahid played for the 2019 Laney team that was featured in “Last Chance U.”

Although Brown resigned from ICC in 2019, he’s parlayed his celebrity from the show into new ventures. The former coach and Southern California resident has more than 115,000 followers on Twitter, 50,000-plus on Instagram and has launched his own podcast, along with whiskey and cigar brands.

Brown is proud to see his former player enjoying similar success – albeit in a different arena – since playing his last game at ICC. Along with his exploits on the field, Jackson has the second-biggest Instagram following on WSU’s roster, with more than 14,000 , and was one of the first Cougars to capitalize on new NIL (Name, Image, Likeness) legislation.

“CJ’s just a great kid. I always tried to get his mind to be more mentally tough and he really, from his freshman to sophomore year with me, really blossomed and grew and matured,” Brown said. “I talk to (WSU coach Nick Rolovich) quite often about him. We go way back, we’re (junior college) guys together. Rolo said he’s really came full circle. He’s done a lot better things than he had his first year with Rolo and obviously then the first year he got to Wazzu for Mike Leach. I expect great things from him.”

To put Jackson ’s 2021 season into perspective, the graduate player has 26 receptions for 334 yards and three touchdowns through his first five games after recording 38 receptions for 416 yards and three touchdowns in his first 18 games at WSU. He ranks fourth in the conference in total receiving yards, yards per game and receptions per game, and is tied for fifth in TD catches.

“As you can tell, he catches the ball with his eyes, actually, not his body,” Brown said. “So the ball never gets to his chest, never crosses his face, and he does all the things as a coach you want from a receiver, especially a slot guy that can move around and stretch the field vertically as well as horizontally, and he does all those things well. He’s an Odell Beckham-ish with hand-eye coordination. He really has a special gift with hand and eye.”

Jackson ’s production in 2021 could stem from any number of things, but it’s most likely an amalgamation of each . He’s playing in the slot as opposed to the outside, which creates mismatches against heavier-footed linebackers. He’s getting more snaps in Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense, which normally relies on four starting wideouts as opposed to Leach’s Air Raid, which shuffles between two players at each WR position. And he’ll play a full 12-game slate after redshirt rules limited him to four games in 2019 and injuries/COVID-19 cancellations reduced him to one in 2020.

“Not that he can’t beat any corner, I just think he’s a problem you have to schematically prepare for and I think he’s more suited there because you can motion him, he can do other things and then if you get into 12-personnel or double tight end sets, he can still play outside or in the slot if you go over in the twin sets,” said Brown, who primarily used him as a slot receiver at ICC before Jackson moved to the outside in 2018 with Leach. “So he can do so many things and you have the luxury as a coach to have that ability, so now it’s hard to double-team him, it’s harder to bracket him, it’s harder to do things with him now with RPOs and everything they’re probably doing up there.”

While the Netflix documentary captured many of Jackson ’s top plays from a junior college season that saw him haul in 25 passes for 381 yards and four touchdowns, the Florida native didn’t get much screen time away from the gridiron.

More often than not, “Last Chance U” cameras gravitated to ICC players who stirred up trouble off the field or those who came from hardscrabble backgrounds, making their stories more compelling to a TV audience.

Jackson didn’t fit either mold.

“You never had to worry about him. He’s a high-character kid, great family, ‘yes sir, no sir’ guy. He was a blessing to coach,” Brown said. “The show don’t show it, but we had a lot of those type of guys.

“They want to follow the knuckleheads and the drama kids to make their story, so he was a kid, he could’ve easily been followed, but he’s too good of a kid. He was never an issue off the field. Never, not one time, man. And never missed a class.”

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