DC Avalos’ system typically uses three down linemen and a STUD backer on the line plus two inside linebackers, and deploys an additional strongside OLB only in situations when an extra backer is strategically appropriate. In 2019 that OLB role was played by the senior and longtime starter La’Mar Winston, and it did represent a reduction in playing time for him (I thought he handled it gracefully). We therefore didn’t get a clear picture of who the backup and likely replacement was that year, since Winston was ready whenever the position was required.
I believe that, with Winston’s graduation, the job will be filled by his backup from 2018, when the Ducks used a different defensive structure which called for that position on nearly every snap: #29 OLB Jackson. He was a highly recruited 4-star (.9313 in the 24/7 composite) in the 2018 class and was put on the field right away.
Jackson played in 12 games as a true freshman, including two starts because Winston was unavailable. All told, Jackson got in about 200 snaps in 2018, most of them during non-garbage time as part of a regular rotation with Winston. That’s a considerable number of reps and a show of confidence by the staff for a true freshman behind an established upperclassman starter.
He graded out very well on my tally sheet in 2018; I thought only about 10% of his plays constituted a bad rep for him (Winston’s career number was about 8.5%, for comparison), although typical to outside linebackers on about a third of all his plays the ball simply went in a different direction and so it’s difficult to evaluate any contribution he made. Jackson then suffered a foot injury near the end of Fall camp in 2019 and missed the entire season — he discussed his recovery as part of a wide-ranging interview this summer — so he’ll be a redshirt sophomore in 2020.
The first thing that jumps off the tape about Jackson is his long limbs and the explosiveness they bring. That lets him bring something extra to his pursuits which are a blast to watch:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it in ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - Jackson’s on the field side of the line, and his responsibility is covering the throwing lane for that wheel route the back is running. Once the QB tucks on this draw play, however, he jumps back quickly to cover the outside edge of his run. Probably shouldn’t be turning his back on the play, however - I noticed he has a tendency to spin it around like this.
- :08 - Just look at the distance Jackson covers here, and then that burst at the end to catch the ballcarrier from behind.
- :18 - Another play where Jackson goes all the way around to catch the ballcarrier.
- :27 - Jackson wasn’t officially credited with a sack or even a tackle here, but I think he should get at least half a sack on the stat sheet for this T-E stunt where he blows by the guard and flushes the QB.
It’s a bit tougher to evaluate Jackson when he’s backing out to play coverage or starting at depth, because I never saw any opponent challenge his assignment when he did. That’s the paradox of coverage - if you do a good job, you might never have the film to prove it. All I can report is that I don’t believe I ever saw him make a mistake on such plays. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - Against QBs who ran the ball a lot, then-DC Leavitt had Jackson playing in the middle as a spy like on this play. Great mobility and focus here, and watch his hips always staying square.
- :08 - This is zone coverage which means Jackson has to read the QB and figure out where the play is going. He does, maintains outside leverage so the back is forced back inside, maneuvers around the LT trying to block downfield, and gets in position to help with the tackle.
- :26 - There’s a lot going on here but Jackson is processing it well and not overplaying. He knows he has help coming behind him to deal with the back after the QB keeps it so he stays in the lane then rushes the passer. Square shoulders the whole way, doesn’t commit himself one way or the other for the QB to read.
- :39 - Jackson is to the boundary here, first jamming the TE when he releases then handing off the coverage to rush the passer and force this throwaway.
What Jackson most needs to improve on from his true freshman season is his edge rush. I’ve seen him effectively play as part of a blitz or a stunt, but I don’t have any film on him getting around the corner against an OT to hurry or sack the QB:
- :00 - Here’s a blitz against a screen, and you can see Jackson’s speed off the line and hardly getting slowed at all by the LT’s chip block as he goes downfield. Nice reverse and pursuit to help with the tackle, too.
- :08 - This play is very typical of standard 4-man rushes in 2018, I picked it because #11 OLB Hollins has the same assignment on the other side so the reader can compare his technique to Jackson’s. Hollins has a much more controlled inside cut around the LT and he survives that last push to get to the QB, whereas Jackson blows past the RT but is easily shoved out of the way.
- :16 - Jackson’s doing his job here occupying the LT, and once the play breaks down he does a great job as usual breaking off and pursuing the QB. But there was never any danger of him overwhelming the blocker before that point.
- :25 - Another blitz, and again Jackson’s speed is obvious. The slow-footed LT never has a chance of blocking him cleanly, but he doesn’t need to - a simple shoulder shove is all it takes to redirect Jackson’s momentum and let the QB step up and away from him.
In rush defense, Jackson graded out very well on my tally sheet. The challenge young OLBs tend to face is that their job is to maintain outside leverage - even if the back really, really looks like he’s headed inside, you can’t jump at him, but instead have to stay on the outside because if he cuts around you there’s no help. I never saw him take that bait, and it was very rare that he lost an outside block either:
- :00 - Good job coming down and absorbing the hit from the H-back crossing under, but more impressive is that little delay on the edge that forces the back to go inside where the ILBs can help.
- :05 - This is the closest I could find to a bad outside run defense, in that Jackson comes inside the H-back, but he gets off him to string the run out and he knows he’s got safety help in the alley.
- :13 - The little hesitation is key here - he’s waiting for the play to develop a bit in terms of the possible play-action handoff and the H-back’s block. Once it’s clear he has the burst to catch the back from behind.
- :20 - It may not look like he’s contributing here but this is really promising - Jackson’s engaged the RT with his inside arm only, leaving his outside arm to whack the TE and maintain leverage. If the ballcarrier had gotten out of the backfield, the only way Jackson could be stopped from getting to him would be an obvious hold that would draw a flag.
Jackson also played a pretty smart game defending various option plays, without many freshman mistakes to clean up. These can be tricky for a young defender because the point is to make the defense wrong no matter what they choose, so you have to muddy the offense’s read as much as possible by not overcommitting, as inexperienced players often do. Jackson’s track record is very clean in that regard:
- :00 - This is an RPO with several different options, typical of Arizona OC Mazzone’s offense. Jackson has them all covered without giving the QB an easy out - the TE jam prevents the quick pass, he comes down enough to obscure the throwing lane, stays square with the QB to keep him from running, and finally rushes the QB to force an off-platform throw.
- :08 - Great job clouding the read here, eventually forcing the late pitch when he knows the safety has had enough time to come down and hit the back. Again, watch the square posture, no way for the QB to tell how he’s committed.
- :23 - Here’s the worst read defense I could find from Jackson. He bites a little early and gets fooled about where the ball is. He’s got inside help, he should have just stayed outside the whole way - spinning around in pursuit just trips the ILB and lets the QB get even more of a gain.
- :38 - Nice job on this RPO. He’s not the read man here, that’s the nickelback who’s playing in so the QB pulls to throw out, but Jackson rides it well and then his long arms let him get a hand in the throwing lane to force a weird lob that the receiver can’t handle.
Overall, Jackson had a very promising debut as an outside linebacker. He has obvious physical gifts for the job in terms of speed and length, and understands the important principles of playing with leverage and patience. He has a few freshman mistakes to clean up of course but fewer than I was expecting to see. If he can add some core and lower-body strength to let him get around the corner as an edge rusher he’ll be the complete package at OLB.