Thomas Jackson’s last trip home to Charlotte, at the end of July, was entirely ordinary. Nights relaxing at home. Trips to the local Harris Teeter. Even a visit or two to his favorite sandwich shop just south of uptown, Laurel Market.
“I always get a No. 4,” Jackson said Monday after North Carolina’s final day of football training camp. “It’s got this chipotle spread, lots of ham, turkey. ...Really good stuff.”
But now it’ll be a while before Jackson can order another No. 4. Instead of lounging on his couch or wiping chipotle mayo from his face, he’s been sweating, sprinting, doing everything required of him as a veteran wide receiver for the Tar Heels’ football team.
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Last season, UNC didn’t necessarily need Jackson, as it boasted one of the most potent aerial offenses in college football. Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, finally alone atop the depth chart, had a litany of weapons at his disposal in Ryan Switzer, Mack Hollins and Bug Howard. Out of the backfield, there were seasoned running backs T.J. Logan and Elijah Hood as receiving options, too.
And then, all at once, they were gone.
Trubisky went No. 2 overall in April’s NFL draft to the Chicago Bears, who traded up a spot to select him. The Philadelphia Eagles took Hollins later on while their division rival, the Dallas Cowboys, took Switzer. The two running backs went west - Logan to the Arizona Cardinals and Hood to the Los Angeles Raiders. Then Howard signed with the Detroit Lions as an undrafted free agent. UNC’s once-formidable offense had dissolved.
But not everyone left, and now those still around will be tasked to pick up the slack. Austin Proehl, the son of former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Ricky Proehl, is back as the team’s leading returning receiver.
And then, well, there’s Jackson. And now the Tar Heels do need him.
‘Had to be patient’
Jackson, who is 5-foot-11 and 185-pounds, didn’t arrive in Chapel Hill as any heralded recruit or sought-after prospect. He walked onto the team as a freshman and went to special teams, if he saw the field at all.
“The hardest part was really just having to wait my turn,” Jackson said. “ I knew I could do it, but a guy who went to the Cowboys last year was in front of me, so I just had to be patient.”
So he was, and for the bulk of two years, he barely saw the field. His sophomore season, the doubts started creeping in, not about his talent, but about his opportunity. Still, he stayed, perfecting his routes and his roles on special teams, displaying a work ethic that made him impossible to sit.
The work eventually paid off his junior season. While Jackson never leapfrogged Switzer or Hollins or even Proehl on the depth chart, he at least saw the field, contributing whenever he entered the game. His season highlight came in UNC’s win against then-ranked Florida State, when he caught a screen, shook a Seminoles defender, and raced 34 yards down the left sideline into the endzone.
He’s gonna have a couple more of those this year,” receiver Devin Perry said.
Jackson finished the year with a modest stat line - 17 catches, 186 yards, four touchdowns -- but a stat line nonetheless. Now in 2017, he’ll have more of a chance than ever before.
‘He’s kicked that door down’
The former Charlotte Country Day star was everywhere during Monday’s practice, as his reputation has come to be. He blocked dummies, ran routes of his own, and then mentored younger receivers on the sidelines about the intricacies of the position. That leadership position, carved through years of clawing for every snap, isn’t lost on Jackson’s teammates.
“He’s taken on that role without anybody really opening the door for him,” Perry said. “He’s kicked that door down.”
But for all the talk and hoopla and buzz about leadership or experience, none of it matters if it doesn’t manifest on the field. If Monday’s practice was an indication, that won’t be a problem for Jackson. During normal screen routes, he leaped to corral a high pass, landed and spun in one motion, then shimmied his way past a mock defender -- what was that about making the most of every snap?
“He’s the type of receiver where if you’re not doing what you’re supposed to, he’ll route (embarrass) you,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “He’ll make you look bad. He makes you sharper every day.”
When UNC hosts California on Sep. 2, Jackson should line up primarily in the slot, where he’ll have a chance to make a host of defenders look bad.
As for which quarterback will be throwing him passes, Jackson doesn’t t know, nor does he particularly care. He’s more concerned with continuing to improve, continuing to prove he belongs, even though he already has.
So Thomas, when you arrived three years ago, could you have imagine you’d be one of the veteran receivers at a program with such a high standard for pass-catchers?
“You know, no,” Jackson said with a smile. “When I first came in I was just really happy to be a part of UNC football. And then after that, when you reach that goal, you want something more. I wanted a scholarship. Then when I reached that goal, I wanted a touchdown. Then after that I want to be the guy.”
Now this fall, after all those years of waiting, he’ll finally get the chance.