PULLMAN – Calvin Jackson Jr. sported jersey No. 8 for the first time Saturday, and the receiver’s individual performance was among his best in a Washington State uniform.
He amassed career highs in yards (91) and receptions (seven) in his first start as a Cougar, exhibiting exceptional bursts of quickness on crossing-route catches and outracing defenders toward the sideline before turning upfield for big gains.
Many of the Cougs’ most electric plays of the night featured Jackson in his new number.
He’s paying tribute with every snap.
His late father, Calvin Jackson Sr., donned the same digit during his playing days at Auburn.
“It’s a huge dedication to him,” Jackson Jr. said.
Jackson Sr. died of an illness in March. He was 48.
To honor his memory, Jackson vows that he’ll play every game with the same fearless, spirited attitude that defined his dad’s career.
“He left everything out on the field every day,” Jackson said of his father, who was a safety for the Tigers’ undefeated 1993 team before a six-year run in the NFL with the Miami Dolphins. “From watching him back in the day, when he had his highlights on CDs, he left everything out there. So, that’s what I try to do every day.”
Jackson , a graduate slot man from the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, area, is primed for a breakout season in his fourth year with the program.
All things considered, he’s due some good fortune.
Arriving in Pullman as a junior transfer in 2018, Jackson appeared in 13 games at outside receiver, and recorded an encouraging season, his most productive one yet in Pullman. He logged 287 yards and two scores on 26 catches and attracted some offseason expectations.
But he got lost in the mix of an overstocked receiving corps and took a redshirt in 2019 after playing in four games. A year later, his hopes to at last have a standout campaign were curbed when he sustained a season-ending hamstring injury in Week 1.
“It felt like forever that I hadn’t played football,” he said. “Going through the injury process is rough. It tests you physically and mentally. Just knowing you have people in your corner that support you and always have your back is another way of motivating yourself.
“You don’t want to let people down. That was my main focus. It made me go harder than I ever went before.”
Jackson couldn’t stand the idea of sitting around and waiting to heal, so he took the opportunity to dive deep into the playbook and learn all the ins and outs of new coach Nick Rolovich’s run-and-shoot offense.
“I sat down and tried to process everything,” he said. “I wasn’t practicing, but I was getting the mental reps.
“I had a play sheet in my hand, watching people run different things and asking lots of questions. I’m glad I did it the way I did. … I think that paid dividends.”
Not three months after the season, tragedy struck. The wound of the loss has not healed, Jackson said, but, “I’m in a better mindset now than before.”
He pictures his father “up there smiling at me,” while he’s scooting past defenders, and thinks back to some of Jackson’s advice.
“He’s helped me along the way. He wouldn’t want me to dwell on anything too much or be too upset, because you have a season to play,” Jackson said.
“He told me to just never hold back and put your all into it. He would always tell me I’m going to be somewhere in life where I want to be. I know where I want to be, so I’ll keep my head down and continue to do that.”
Jackson ’s “all in” mantra certainly came into play early in fall camp, when he was asked to move from outside receiver to the inside to fill the void left by a season-ending ACL injury to Renard Bell.
The blocking schemes are different, and he’s not used to playing in so much space.
“It’s still something I’m adjusting to,” he said. “I played outside for a very long time over here at Washington State.”
But there’s an adaptable quality about Jackson that has made the transition appear seamless. He’s plain fast, too, so that helps.
He’s embracing the position change with open arms.
“I want to end my last year with a bang,” he said. “So with this move, I’ve decided to take full advantage of it and take it by storm, make sure I do everything in my power to be healthy, know the offense, know the plays so nothing will hold me back – so I won’t have any regrets.”
Jackson also has some experience at slot from his time as a star pass-catcher at Independence (Kansas) Community College, which was spotlighted on the popular Netflix series “Last Chance U” during Jackson ’s sophomore year.
Back then, he was shifted to various spots on the field from play to play, wherever the mismatches were.
Independence sought to get the ball in his hands, however possible.
It feels like ages ago that Jackson was an evasive 150-pounder straightening out his academics while playing junior college ball on national television in a town of about 300.
He has since bulked up to 190 pounds while becoming a go-to target in the Pac-12, a college graduate and a voice of wisdom among the Cougars, the younger of whom tend to pick his brain and call him “old man.”
“It’s his leadership that has stood out to me, really,” said sophomore receiver Donovan Ollie, “because we all know he can play. But when he steps up and leads all of us to get on the same level, that makes the biggest difference.”
Jackson caught passes from Gardner Minshew in 2018 and played alongside such former WSU receiving stalwarts as Dezmon Patmon, Easop Winston Jr. and Tay Martin.
He took pointers and said he’s “carrying on” lessons he learned a few years ago, and now distributing knowledge to the latest WSU newcomers.
“I was in the room with a lot of great people,” Jackson said. “It’s always good to have those younger guys come up to you and ask questions, like, ‘What happened a few years ago against Oregon on College GameDay?’ I love talking about the flashbacks and being able to say I played with all those guys.”
WSU’s 26-23 loss to Utah State was Jackson ’s 19th game in crimson and gray and one of his three most effective outings.
Rolovich said his newest slotback appeared comfortable in the position.
“Happy for him,” Rolovich said “Tough year in multiple ways for him, and for him to stay focused and use some of those things as inspiration, I thought he showed probably what Coug fans saw early from him when he got here.”
Jackson acknowledged it was satisfying to finally get an opportunity to showcase himself after multiple setbacks, but said his performance would have been more meaningful had the Cougars won.
He was a bright spot for a WSU offense that appeared otherwise out of sync. Jackson demonstrated his speed and elusiveness, totaling 74 yards after the catch.
“Making something happen after is just another thing you have to do,” he said.
Jackson ’s primary individual goal in 2021 is to cap the season without a drop. He distinguishes himself with his glue-like hands and, like his father, a tendency to “go 100% all the time.”
When he wraps up his stay in Pullman and a season that is “1,000% dedicated” to his father, Jackson intends to try his hand at the next level, and keep up that family tradition.
“He took a lot of pride in talking to me after games and making sure I was doing everything right,” Jackson said of his father. “We spoke a lot going into my last year about what I want to do after the season, what I have to do to be successful, because he’s been there, too.”
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