Like Brian Westbrook, Terrell Owens, and the great Walter Payton before him, Asa Jackson strolled into Mobile, Alabama in late January determined to show that small school players could star on the big stage. But big accomplishments are nothing new for Jackson. As a four-time first team All Great West Conference cornerback and two-time defensive player of the year, Jackson ultimately garnered national recognition this year as an AP third team All American. And it’s impossible to overstate what Jackson has meant to his football team over the course of his career. For the last four seasons, the Cal Poly Mustangs have been no one trick ponies. When the cards were on the table, they still had one up their sleeve, the highest card in the deck, Asa Jackson, the Ace of Spades.
At 5’10″, 193 lbs., Jackson may not scare opponents with his physical size, but the same can’t be said for his speed. Clocked at 4.4, Jackson possesses an elite top gear and defined burst to go along with solid change of direction skills, agility, and balance. He utilizes his athletic gifts to excel in man coverage, mirroring wide receivers fluidly and transitioning well out of breaks with his pad level down, allowing him to maintain balance and acceleration. Typically, Jackson sits comfortably into his stance, then displays a compact, smooth backpedal and balanced footwork, though at times he gets too high moving backwards, limiting his lateral agility and the potential to rapidly redirect his body. He slides his feet well laterally and turns his body fluidly to run with receivers on deeper routes, though he has a tendency to open the hips prematurely and just use pure athleticism, rather than refined technique, to complete the coverage assignment. Also, in off-man, he has a tendency to give receivers too big a cushion, relying on his speed to close the gap, resulting in too many underneath completions.
With his physical tools, it’s easy to see why he would take these approaches; however, at the next level, that raw ability will need to be coupled with disciplined technique. Given his coachability and drive, it should be an issue quickly resolved under the guidance of NFL coaches. In route, Jackson closes quickly, showing good burst, attacking both the ball and receiver, and displaying a penchant for breaking up passes. When beaten, he possesses the speed to recover, especially on double moves, which were a bigger concern in previous seasons but occurred less frequently in 2011. Another area of needed improvement for Jackson is in press-man situations at the line of scrimmage. When jamming, he doesn’t deliver a strong blow or get into the opponent’s body enough to re-route or disrupt the timing of the receiver. And at times, he will too easily allow the wideout to gain inside leverage and position. But he doesn’t shy away from contact, and at Cal Poly he wasn’t asked to play much aggressive press coverage. As such, with better hand placement and attention to technique, he should improve here.
As in off-man situations, zone coverage is an area of strength for Jackson. Rarely out of position, he exhibits good field awareness and the ability to quickly diagnose route combinations. Showing mature awareness, he’ll watch both his coverage assignment and the quarterback’s eyes, then close quickly when the ball is in the air, with a knack for breaking up the pass or dislodging the ball from the receiver. At times, again, he gives opponents too much space, allowing some easy completions underneath; however, often he’s simply baiting the quarterback into a bad throw. He’ll surrender two short completions, then, on the third, he’ll jump the route and make a breakup or a pick, a technique that Asante Samuel has employed effectively his entire career. In fact, Jackson reminds me of Samuel, but with better tackling ability and overall toughness. Like Samuel, Jackson is a truly instinctual player. At this point in his development, he may not have an NFL-level acute awareness of route progressions, but he has a sixth sense for knowing where the ball will be. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time, with a knack for making the big play.
Whether instinctively undercutting routes or coming off his man to make a play on another wide receiver, Jackson’s plus ball skills are often on display. Though not an owner of big hands or elite leaping ability, he knows when to play the ball and not the man, quickly locating the pass in the air and generally coming down with the rock. Post-interception, he showcases All Conference punt return skills and is a genuine threat to take every turnover to the endzone. In 2011, Jackson returned both of his interceptions for touchdowns, including a 100 yard gem against South Dakota State. In run support, he locates the ballcarrier quickly and generally attacks using the proper angle. Though he doesn’t shed blockers well if they get into his frame, he routinely side-steps blocks, making use of his lateral agility. On contact, he’s a technically sound tackler who wraps up and on occasions when he can generate speed into the hit, he will lay guys out. He genuinely seems to like contact, and though he wasn’t used often in the box, he has shown promise as an edge blitzer, utilizing his speed off the corner.
Though not a finished product, Jackson has the athletic ability, technical skills, and innate instincts to be a starting NFL cornerback. In both zone and off-man coverages, he’s NFL-ready to contribute immediately as a third corner or nickel back, eventually working his way into a full-time role. As a press corner, he’s still a work in progress, but he’s genuinely inexperienced and untested in this area; when Jackson played up at the line, very few opposing quarterbacks threw in his direction. But he certainly has the tools to develop, and, in two or three years, should be a complete player. Combine that with dynamic punt return talent, impressive ball skills, and big play ability, and it’s easy to see why Jackson could rise up draft boards as April approaches, especially in a league where all teams recognize the need for speed. Whether through an explosive punt return, a big hit, or a demoralizing interception returned for a score, Jackson’s speed has the potential to inflict injury in a myriad of ways. Opponents are forced to pick their poison. In the end, the ace of spades has always been known as the “death” card, and, for Cal Poly opponents, that couldn’t be more appropriate. It may be quick and painless, but make no mistake, when facing this cornerback speed kills, and the only card you’ll draw is Asa Jackson, the Ace of Spades.