Jackson (18 tkl, 4.0 TFL, sack in ’12) moved to nose tackle last season after playing defensive end his first two years in Chapel Hill. The St. Petersburg, Fla. native arrived at UNC weighing 240 pounds, but bulked up to 295 over the summer. That weight wasn’t comfortable, though, so he’s back down to a preferred 285.
Jackson spent the offseason recovering from a knee injury that was the result of a cheap shot by a Duke player on Oct. 20. He spent an inordinate amount of time in the playbook trying to master the three-technique position that he’s taken over. While that will be his primary position, he will also play nose in certain pass situations when UNC employs a three-man rush.
His technical focus this summer centered on small details such as footwork and hand placement. The idea being that when the action gets hectic, those fundamentals will be second nature so all he has to think about is the scheme and what the offense is doing.
There’s also been an emphasis on developing an explosive first step, an area where Williams excelled during his career at UNC.
“The first step is critical,” Jackson said. “The offensive linemen aren’t expecting it, it takes them longer to get into what they want to do because they’re worried about you coming off the ball so fast. The first step is really the key to being disruptive.”
Jackson’s comfort level with the defensive scheme is a common theme amongst his Tar Heel teammates.
“I’m excited about this defense due to the fact that we know the scheme a lot better,” Jackson said. “They can throw more at us and we’re able to handle it. On the back end and the front end, everybody’s really grasping what they want us to do. Last year you were mostly worried about what you were doing, but now we’ve got a concept of what everybody is doing.”
UNC head coach Larry Fedora lit into his team following Wednesday’s practice about better execution in special situations. The Tar Heels had chances to win in the final minutes last year against Wake Forest, Louisville and Duke, but came up short.
“Mastering situations is what we want to do,” Jackson said. “Third down, red zone, two-minute, four-minute. The special situations are the things that can win or lose a game. Looking back to last year, it was those special situations that either won the game for us or got us beat, so that’s really been the focus going into this year.”
Fedora has praised Jackson this offseason for taking on a leadership role not only up front, but also with the team as a whole. The 6-foot-5, 285-pounder earned ACC All-Academic honors in 2012, so he’s been effective leading his teammates both on and off the field. He’s made a point to become more vocal in the locker room and team meetings.
His experience also provides him with a better grasp of how the defensive line situation is shaping up.
“We’re deeper than people think,” Jackson said. “Those young guys are stepping up and starting to line the position. I really want to shout out Justin Thomason. He’s really shown me something. He’s gotten up to about 270-275; last year he played at about 250. I’m anxious to see what he can do. He’s a dog down there. He’s got the heart and that’s all you can ask for.”
Jackson has also been impressed with red-shirt freshman J.J. Patterson’s move from offensive guard to defensive tackle.
“He’s a natural defensive lineman,” Jackson said. “Strong, a quick step… He’s quick for his size. But really he’s just a strong player. He’s probably the strongest guy we’ve got on the defensive line already. His punch is amazing.”
Jackson has started 13 games in his career, including five at defensive end and seven at nose tackle. He’s hoping to double that total, if not more, in his final season at UNC.