Winning championships has become the norm for Saint Francis linebacker Jamal Jackson.
The Indianapolis native won three at Cathedral High School and was part of the back-to-back NAIA national title teams with the Cougars in 2016-17. Five of his last seven football seasons have ended with rings, so when Saint Francis fell to Morningside in the semifinals last year it hit him hard.
“It was strange because having so much success it just didn't seem right in a program that's so apt to winning,” Jackson said. “You walk in here and you see trophies, pictures and it just didn't feel like it was right, but I think that inspired a lot of us and we're fighting to get back to that because we knew it wasn't right.”
Jackson, a redshirt junior, has been plagued with injuries in his career. He tore his patellar tendon in camp prior to the 2017 season and he had surgery in the past offseason to repair a torn meniscus before returning to action in camp this season.
Now, he's leading a young linebacker corps and is second on the team in tackles (37). The No. 6-ranked Cougars (5-1, 2-1 Mid-States Football Association) play host to No. 21 Siena Heights on Saturday and will need a stout defense against the Saints.
“Personally, I think it was the best thing for me. Mentally, my freshman year I don't want to say I had a big head, but being a freshman playing around here you can kind of get complacent,” Jackson said. “Then, going into my sophomore year, of course I wanted to work, but I don't know how hungry I was and getting hurt re-sparked that for me.”
Jackson had an impressive freshman season, making appearances in 12 games with one start. He said the on-field activity part of his recovery was just as difficult as the mental toll it took on him.
“When I first came back last year, I didn't really know how to play football again I had to re-learn,” he said. “But I think that was what's best for me. Before I was playing just off pure athletic ability and now, I learned how to play linebacker.”
He's one of the few linebackers left on the Cougars' roster that played alongside Saint Francis' top two career leading tacklers in Piercen Harnish and Eric Dunten.
“Piercen was probably one of the smartest guys I know when it comes to football,” Jackson said. “He's a football savant. Just picking up things he would say in the meeting room, a lot of time we would try and run a play and he would say, 'no, we can't run that because it just wouldn't add up schematically.' Watching Dunten, seeing the way he flew to the ball, his athleticism and the way he played.”
Co-defensive coordinator Eric Wagoner said Jackson is a smart player who knows the defense inside and out.
“He came in knowing football and knows what it takes to execute at a high level and what's demanded of people,” Wagoner said. “He's not a Dunten, who's going to be running sideline to sideline, but he doesn't have to because he puts himself in the right position all the time.”
Jackson is one of the veterans of this young defense, that's seen its share of injuries. He said the less-experienced players have stepped up in a big way, including River Walsh, Cade Erwin and Jackson Long.
“When they go on the field they don't play like they're second string, they play like they're going out there and they're the best guy,” Jackson said. “And I respect that a lot. In the past we've had such great of guys out there, All-Americans, and with some players there would be a drop-off, and you don't see a lot of drop-off with those guys.”
The Cougars' defense has showed glimpses of what its capable of this year. Last week against Indiana Wesleyan, Chrys Colley deflected a pass on a 2-point conversion with seconds remaining that would have won it for the Wildcats. Jackson said two star players aren't going to get it done for the Cougars this year, but as a unit they can.
“Everyone does their job, and we do it because we know we want to do it for the person next to us,” he said. “That gives us an edge on some other people. We may not have those All-Americans we had in the past, but we have a cohesive bond.”
Saint Francis vs. Siena Heights
When: Noon Saturday
Where: Bishop D'Arcy Stadium
Radio: 106.3 FM