By JAMES MORAN | Tiger Rag Associate Editor
Everybody knows Donte Jackson as the fastest man in college football.
He wants to make sure people know there’s more to his game than foot speed.
Jackson already enjoys the reputation of a shutdown corner. He’s targeted by opposing quarterbacks so infrequently that he keeps a running mental counter of how many times he’s thrown at. Boredom may have eventually set in if he were left alone on his island on the outside.
Instead LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda came up with another idea during the pre-Alabama bye week: take the leash off.
While he continues to play inside in LSU’s nickel defense, the role Tre’Davious White occupied last season, Jackson has started the past two games playing safety in LSU’s 3-4 base defense.
The wrinkle allows LSU to put its top three corners — Jackson, Greedy Williams and Kevin Toliver — on the field with veteran safety John Battle instead of leaving one on the sideline for true freshman Grant Delpit.
“You don’t know where he’s going to be,” defensive end Christian LaCouture said. “I think that’s something that helps him out and helps the team out. He can line up at safety. He can line up at nickel. He can line up at corner. That can really help us out because offenses can’t focus on that one spot.”
It’s also allowed Jackson freedom to show he can do more than cover outside receivers.
Arkansas targeted him unsuccessfully twice on its opening drive, leading to a punt. He came up from his safety spot on the next drive and dropped the ball carrier in the backfield for a two-yard loss. Then he came unblocked on a nickel blitz and sacked Austin Allen to force another punt.
“I’m getting very confident back there,” Jackson said. “I’m not scared of nothing. I can sit out there on an island and shut down anybody in front of me, but I can also get in the trenches and get my pads dirty while having fun with the big guys as well. It’s showing versatility. It’s showing toughness.”
He continued: “I like the versatility that playing safety brings. The chance to get up in there and make tackles, get around the ball a lot; I like that. It’s a big man’s game. I’m little, but I’m big. It’s fun.”
Since LSU began moving Jackson around the secondary — a luxury enabled by the emergence of Williams and the re-emergence of Toliver — the LSU defense has steadily improved. Frank Herron’s return to the defensive line rotation and Arden Key’s return to form also bolstered a unit trending in the right direction.
Jackson credits Key and Aranda for that sack, the first of his collegiate career. Anticipating a double team of Key, Jackson lined up on his side and blitzed right off his outside hip unabated to the quarterback.
“When we put it in the gameplan, we knew they were going to pay a lot of attention to 49, so they put me and 49 on the same side,” Jackson explained. “When we actually ran it and they doubled him, I came off the edge and was like Bingo, just how I dreamed it. He ducked on me a little bit. I wanted to hit him harder.”
That brashness and playmaking ability was missing from a defense that looked sieve-like earlier this season. LSU surrounded 29 points per game during a disastrous three-game stretch bookended by losses to Mississippi State and Troy.
LSU has allowed only 19.6 points per game in five Southeastern Conference contests since while compiling a 4-1 record. The defense still misses more tackles than Aranda would like, but it’s climbing up the national rankings in total defense (No. 16), scoring defense (No. 21), pass defense (No. 16) and sacks (No. 9).
The unit was dominant again on Saturday, hogtying the struggling Razorbacks all afternoon outside of an 87-yard touchdown drive just before halftime. Jackson had a message for LSU’s longtime SEC West rivals after keeping The Boot in Baton Rouge for a second straight year.
Jackson scribbled “Maybe Next Year!” on a dry erase board and walked around with it during the postgame handshakes — subtlety has never been his strong suit.
“It’s a statement,” Jackson said. “When you play with that type of dominance as a defense, you feel like you can hold a sign up like that. Ballgame. I want them to feel it. I’m walking around shaking their players’ hands with the sign in my hand because I really don’t care. We were dominant. We earned the right to be that confident. I felt like we, as a team, we came to play. So, maybe next year.”