Jackson steadies growing secondary

SOUTH BEND, Ind. --The emotion that Bennett Jackson plays with while covering receivers for Notre Dame can be traced to roughly a decade ago, his years as a youth-league player setting the foundation for a cornerback who, in he and his teammates' words, is hyper-competitive, talks endless trash and hates nothing more than losing.

Before every practice with the Hazlet (N.J.) Hawks, coach Greg Fitzpatrick would bring his 10- and 11-year-old players into a circle before asking, in no uncertain terms: How do you feel?

"WE-FEEL-GOOD!" they would shout back in unison.

"We used to have chants and all that nonsense -- he just was a presence," Jackson said last week, recalling his days under Fitzpatrick. "Everyone always had respect for him, and when you see him fired up, everyone else gets fired up."

Jackson has emerged as a steadying presence for what initially looked like a patchwork Irish secondary. The junior arrived at Notre Dame as a receiver and plays opposite a freshman who was recruited as a running back. Both are protected by a safety who made the transition from receiver this past year.

But after surviving a pair of dropped touchdown passes on their first drive Saturday against Miami, the Irish defense now finds itself ranked No. 10 nationally in pass efficiency, and 22nd in passing yards allowed per game.

"You couldn't script it any better," coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame slowed Miami's aerial attack. "You have some young players out there."

Jackson has three of the team's eight interceptions, along with a fumble recovery.

The first-year starter has not lacked for confidence, but he is not afraid to pick others' brains despite being, by default, one of the elder statesmen of his unit.

"He's approached each day with a workman-like attitude and to really come out and focus on the little details of the game and to be more vocal when he needs to be," said senior safety Zeke Motta, the one starting defensive back who came to Notre Dame as a defensive back. "It's not like he's over-boisterous or anything like that."

Jackson, who also runs track for the Irish, drew much of that emotion from Fitzpatrick, playing running back and free safety for his old coach while also kicking and punting.

"I always told the kids that football is a game of emotions, that you have to keep it under control, because I as a coach wore my emotions on my sleeve, that's the way it was," Fitzpatrick said. "Pumped up for a good way, maybe a little aggravated on a missed tackle or something else. It just kind of trickled down to the kids. I always coached them up to be extremely confident, to have them ready and never to be cocky -- do our talking on the field. That's the way it was."

Now at a position where short-term memory is a prerequisite, Jackson has worked on harnessing his energy.

"It's not something easy to do, to just let go," Jackson said. "I just let up a touchdown -- obviously that's going to be at the back of your head. But you've kind of just got to let it go and know you can't do anything about it, so that's the way I look at it."

Jackson closed out a Week 2 win over Purdue by picking off the game's final heave near the end zone. With a victory secured, the over-anxious corner ran up the field, never hitting the ground and only returning to the home sideline after a dash that spanned roughly half the gridiron.

Kelly grabbed Jackson with two hands and sat him down for a brief chat before the postgame handshake, saying to reporters afterward: "What would you tell him? What, are you nuts? Get down, the game's over."

"Well, that's the offensive side of Bennett going," Fitzpatrick cracked.