It’s OK to be a little excited about Donte Jackson.
His teammates are.
The Carolina Panthers rookie cornerback out of LSU had one of the better training camps of anyone on the team. And his adjustment to the NFL so far has not gone unnoticed.
Veteran receiver Torrey Smith was asked on Monday as the team prepared to head back to Charlotte who impressed him most on the defensive side of the ball.
“Besides Luke (Kuechly)? Donte Jackson,” he told the Panthers’ website. “I’ve never seen a player grow more in a single offseason. He’s playing well, playing very confident. He’s been coachable.”
He’s not wrong. In fact, Jackson improved so much throughout camp that the only way to tell that he is still a rookie is when he has to carry a veteran’s helmet off the field after practice.
Jackson’s comfort level in the Panthers’ defense appeared to increase each day. Notorious in college for his big personality and mouth as well as his tenacious play, he was actually pretty quiet for the first few days as he settled in.
He told the Observer on Monday that he was just trying not to mess up, at first. But then veteran safety Mike Adams noticed that Jackson was in his own head a little bit, and told him to just play ball.
“Mike always tells me: ‘You’ve got it. You’re good. Just calm down, go out there and play,’” Jackson said. “And that’s what I’ve really been doing as of late.
“I used to get out there with Luke (Kuechly), Thomas Davis, see all of those guys and just be trying to make sure I was doing my thing right. But then they just told me, ‘Go out there and play football.’ And that’s what they’re doing. So I just try to go out there and match their level of play. That’s what I’ve been doing lately, and it’s showing.”
Training camp success
As he relaxed, he impressed. Matched up against No. 1 receiver Devin Funchess and first-round pick D.J. Moore all through camp, he gave as good as he got.
Through the last couple of days in particular, Jackson’s tenacity and athleticism showed up hugely — as did his personality.
He had several pass breakups and interceptions, including one on Sunday that may have been one of the best moments of training camp.
Jackson picked off quarterback Cam Newton in the end zone and ran it back all the way to the opposite end zone, hyping up the crowd on the hill outside the practice field.
As he trotted over the goal line, he whipped a towel out from behind his back, placed it neatly over one arm, and held the ball up primly as if it were a platter, and he were a waiter at a five-star restaurant.
The crowd lost it. Social media exploded.
“My whole Twitter was blowing up all day yesterday about that, it’s still blowing up,” Jackson said, laughing. “That’s fun. It’s good to get out here and have fun, let people see that you’re having fun and enjoying yourself. That’s what it’s all about at the end of the day.”
The confidence is much-needed for a Panthers secondary that hasn’t featured the same starters year over year since Ron Rivera became head coach. The longest-tenured defensive back is third-year corner James Bradberry.
A starter opposite Bradberry?
Carolina needed to make a clear investment in its secondary in free agency and this year’s NFL draft.
But still, some were skeptical when the Panthers selected Jackson in the second round, because they made it clear they wanted him playing outside cornerback. And despite his stunning speed and impressive college film, he’s generously listed at 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds - a size more traditionally associated with the nickel position.
So Jackson thinks he proved a lot of people wrong with his training camp performance, especially when going up against bigger receivers such as Funchess.
“I just showed that I’m an every-down corner. I can play it all,” he said. “And my heart is big, so I go out there and play big. I’ve been preaching that since I declared for the draft, that I play big. And now people are just starting to see that. The Panthers saw that, and that’s why they drafted me. So I’m going to come out and play hard for them, every single snap.”
Rivera will still deliberate through the preseason about who will start opposite Bradberry in September.
And as well as he has played, Jackson is still a rookie. The road ahead won’t be without bumps.
But Rivera might have showed his hand near the end of camp when he remarked that Jackson’s ability was giving Rivera a comfort level at cornerback that he has not had in two or three years.
Despite all the attention, Jackson says he wants to approach the year ahead as if he’s constantly battling for a starting spot.
“At the end of the day, (defensive coordinator Eric Washington) is just going to pick the best 11,” he said. “If my name gets called in the best 11, I’m going to go out there and I’m going to play. That’s just what it is.
“We have a lot of great cornerbacks, a lot of great guys in that room. The best 11, any one of us can go out there and play on any given day, any given down. And that’s what we’re going to do. I’m just going to keep trying to progress.”