ND's Jackson finds fast lane as kick returner

Bennett Jackson made some nice tackles on special teams early, but he's proving more valuable as a returner. Dennis Wierzbicki/US Presswire

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- According to Google Maps, it takes approximately 11 hours and 19 minutes to drive from Hazlet, N.J. to South Bend. Of course that isn't factoring in breaks, refueling, construction and time lost messing around with those blasted automated toll booths.

Taking the rest of the week off work, Grace Jackson again packed up her truck Wednesday night and set out on the 721-mile trip to the University of Notre Dame -- her fourth of the year -- to watch her son play what will likely amount to less than a minute Saturday against Pittsburgh.

She doesn't mind. She never has.

Grace has shuttled her boy around since the age of five, shuffling sports as fast as Bennett Jackson could change his jersey in the backseat. Such dedication probably factored into his increasing responsibilities with the Fighting Irish -- notably the freshman's proficient performance last week against Boston College returning kickoffs for the first time.

"I was happy to do it," Grace said with a thick Jersey accent. "[Bennett] was always fast. He started with soccer. We traveled a lot with soccer, and I think he really got his speed from soccer. He was a striker. He did basketball and track as well. I was literally taking him off of the soccer field and running him up to a football game. It was a lot of fun."

Notre Dame's most recent special teams star, whose speed earned a state hurdles title last year and a pair of top-five national finishes last year as a senior at Raritan High School, landed on that unit by not making significant strides in fall camp at wide receiver. Bennett dropped balls and didn't pick up the offense quick enough.

The 6-foot, 172-pound wide receiver totaled four tackles -- two of which were of the snot-bubble variety -- defending kickoffs in a season-opening victory against Purdue. But with Notre Dame averaging less than 20 yards per return heading into Week 5, coach Brian Kelly thought the rookie burner would be more useful on the opposite side of the tee.

Under the Alumni Stadium lights last Saturday at Boston College, Jackson returned the opening kickoff -- the first of his career -- 43 yards to set up a quick first scoring drive for the Irish. He finished with 111 yards on four attempts.

"I mean, I got excited about it," Bennett said. "But once the ball got in my hands I just ran."

And followed directions precisely.

"I think certainly you have to have the right mental approach to it, that you're going to catch it and go," Kelly said. "Some of it is the mental ability of a player to just say, ‘Hey, I'm going to trust it, I'm going to hit it and I'm gonna go.' You can't think a lot back there. A lot of thinking is not a good thing on kickoff.

"You've got 11 guys running down field real fast with equipment on. If you're thinking about that, you're probably going to be slow out of the gates. You gotta hit it and he's got that ability where he's a bit fearless from that standpoint. So it takes a different kind of guy to do that."

Excelling in multiple athletic arenas meant Bennett missing out on elite football camps and all-star games, which contributed, he said, to his middling ranking as a recruit. Arriving in South Bend in the fall put him at a disadvantage compared to receiver T.J. Jones, who enrolled early to soak in Kelly's spread offense.

"The offense has been a lot for him," Kelly said. "I will tell you that. T.J. Jones benefited from spring ball and allowing him to be here all summer. But Bennett's coming. He's making progress each week. … He's moving in that direction to take that next step and that is playing some wide receiver."

"I'm working, so if it happens it happens," said Bennett, who hopes to run for the Irish track team but has yet to discuss it with Kelly. "[It's] probably more playbook, getting used to the offense a little bit more and getting everything down pat so I can be crisp and 100 percent."