When DeSean Jackson, California's prized freshman wide receiver, makes what he hopes will be numerous trips to the end zone for the Golden Bears, he promises a more conventional form of entry than the ill-advised one he chose in a January all-star game.
After catching a pass and shaking off a tackler in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, Jackson had 20 yards of open field between himself and the goal line; he decided to cover the last five with a somersault into the end zone. His execution was perfect--he vaulted into the air, flipped head over heels and switched the ball from his right hand to his left--until the landing. Jackson miscalculated and came down inches short of the goal line as the ball squirted loose and out-of-bounds.
The ball would have been spotted on the one, but Jackson was slapped with an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for his dive, so instead of a touchdown his West team ended up with possession at the 16-yard line. "I guess I shouldn't have taken off that early," he says. "Actually, I shouldn't have done it at all. It wasn't the best decision I've ever made."
After being benched for two series as punishment for his gaffe, Jackson returned to catch a touchdown pass and throw for another to lead the West to a 35-3 win. He was voted the game's Most Valuable Player.
Two weeks later the 6-foot, 175-pound Jackson, who had 1,075 receiving yards and 15 touchdowns as a senior at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly last year, made another surprising decision: to spurn nearby USC in favor of Cal, a choice he's certain will have far more positive results. The Golden Bears are equally confident in his big-play ability, thanks to his speed (he has been clocked at 4.29 seconds in the 40), his sure hands and his elusiveness after the catch. "He's one of the most polished receivers I've ever seen coming out of high school," says Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
Working out with his older brother Byron, a receiver who spent time on the Kansas City Chiefs' practice squad in 1992 and '93, helped sharpen Jackson's skills. "Whenever I wasn't playing Pop Warner or Little League or running track, he'd have me out on the field with him, doing drills and running patterns," DeSean says.
As Jackson developed, it seemed likely that he would be running his college patterns for USC; even his all-star game somersault was inspired by Trojans tailback Reggie Bush's end zone dives. But Jackson's choosing Cal was a clear indication of the Golden Bears' rising stature among the college football elite. Tedford's reputation as a guru of the passing game, Cal's 10-2 record last season and the greater likelihood of immediate playing time were among the deciding factors.
"It's too early to pile a lot of expectations on him," says Tedford, who nonetheless is expected to start Jackson. "But he does seem to be one of those players who excites you every time he touches the ball because you know you might see something special. And even with all his talent, he's really a very humble, coachable kid. He's got his feet on the ground." From now on, Jackson plans to keep them there, especially when he's headed for the end zone.
Here are five other rookies who have impressed in practice.
Martellus Bennett, TE, Texas A&M: The athletic 6'7" 244-pounder (who will also play basketball) is an instant upgrade; returning starter Boone Stutz had only 11 catches in '04.
Michael Oher, OL, Ole Miss: New coach Ed Orgeron called the 6'5", 330-pound mauler the cornerstone of his first recruiting class. Expect Oher to start at right guard.
Rashad Jennings, RB, Pitt (below): The 6'1", 235-pound bruiser enrolled in January, went through spring practice and appears to have locked up the starting job.
Kenny Phillips, S, Miami: The 6'2" 200-pounder has shown off his playmaking ability and vows to lead the Hurricanes in interceptions this season.
Patrick Turner, WR, USC: At 6'5", 220 pounds, Turner is a matchup nightmare who likely will be the Trojans' No. 3 receiver this fall.
TWO COLOR PHOTOS
BRAD MANGIN (JACKSON, 2)
The speedy Jackson has all but wrapped up a starting spot.
PAM PANCHAK/PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE/AP (JENNINGS)