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Jackson did plenty of growing to become standout Husker recruit
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Jackson did plenty of growing to become standout Husker recruit

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Mother isn't about to shoot you any bull.

She'll tell you about little Lamar, the one she was driving to football fields when he was just 5, the one whose goofing around in Pop Warner might cost the team about five extra laps around the field.

The big recruit? The four-star defensive back everybody wanted and USC once pressured into silently committing? The one Husker fans lost their dang minds about when he held up his 3-year-old sister and announced he was coming to Nebraska?

As it turns out, Lamar Jackson wasn't always the best guy on the field.

"No, he actually sucked in Pop Warner," says his mother, Catherine Horton. "He did. I'm not going to lie. It's funny. His childhood friends that he played with, they're all in college, they all joke around, 'You were the weakest one. Look at you.'"

What's Lamar say to this noise?

"He's like, 'Nah, I was just playing with y'all.'"

He ain't playing now. The highest-rated Nebraska recruit in the 2016 class, ranked in the top 150 by every recruiting site, will show up in Lincoln on June 5. All business.

"People still say, 'In a couple weeks, you're going to be in the corn fields of Nebraska.' I just laugh," Jackson says. "They say, 'Why you going to Nebraska?' I say, 'Why not?' I make sure to educate a couple dudes, just show them some things."

His purpose is clear. He wants to grasp the defensive scheme quickly and play in 2016.

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, the cornerback from Franklin High School in Elk Grove, California, was recruited to do just that. Juniors Joshua Kalu and Chris Jones are the lead corners until proved otherwise, but opportunity is evident to this Husker not yet on campus.

"Because, coaches, they're telling me that I got a chance to go in there and play right away," Jackson says. "That's my biggest thing, too, when committing. It was like, 'Coach, I know who I am. I got to be on the field.' That's my love for the game. I can't just watch it.'"

He knows this because he had to spend a year watching once before. It was the year, as his mother will tell you, that Lamar Jackson grew up.

He'll tell anybody the same.

"It was about turning into a man, really, and realizing, 'This is your future.' I never really looked back."

* * *

It's not ideal when your football coach calls your mom in front of you. That happened.

Jackson's grades had dipped the year before. Now a freshman, he was having the thing he loved most taken away. No football.

"You're good," his coach, Mike Johnson, told him. "But you have the potential to be great."

Jackson used it as a turning point. It didn't hurt that his mother was there to remind him of what he lost.

"First off, he had to hear my mouth. Oh, God, he was tired of me," Horton says, laughing. "He couldn't go to practice. He didn't have anything else to do. I let him hear it every day. I told him it was his decision. It was his fault that he's not playing. It was time to wake up and get a reality check. And he did it."

About the same time, Jackson's potential was being noticed by others.

Eric Thompson, who started the True Grit Sports training center in Sacramento, saw Jackson walking around the park with a basketball. Impressive-looking kid.

One day Thompson walked up to him and asked, "Kid, do you want to get a scholarship?"

Jackson was soon in the gym all the time, his focus on football.

"As me and my dad like to say, the kid was Play-Doh. Definitely looked like something to mold," says Brandyn Thompson, who helps train Jackson. "The kid just stayed committed, and really just kept getting better and better. And he will continue to keep getting better and better. I don't think the kid has a ceiling."

Jackson was changing his body. He was also changing positions. All his life he'd played mostly offense.

Even his sophomore year of high school, after his grades climbed, he was quarterback. Jumped over a guy for the game-winning touchdown once. A favorite football moment.

"I thought there was no looking back. I was going to be the next Cam Newton," Jackson says.

Mom was proud. She saw how far he'd come.

"That's when he realized, 'I'm younger than these dudes but I'm leading the team at quarterback.' They were on his ass. 'Be carrying us. When you mess up, we all mess up,'" Mom says. "Lamar has carried that pressure in high school since his sophomore year. That made him say, 'You gotta grow up now. ... You're not in the back no more. You're the head of the pack.'"

You don't get to the front alone.

Ask Jackson who was most influential in helping him to this point and there's no hesitation.

"I have to say my mom."

* * *

Turns out he won't be Cam Newton, and that's just fine.

Coaches talked to him after his sophomore year. With his size and athleticism, he could be a monster at defensive back.

Any reluctance about the move left in a hurry. He studies the craft closely. Watches corners like Patrick Peterson and Trumaine Johnson. "I watch so much football."

Jackson's only been playing in the secondary two years, but the offers rolled in. Boise State was first. Soon, about 200 letters a week. Phone blowing up.

Some guys let it inflate their head. "The greatest thing that I love about this kid is all the praise and all the expectations have only made him want it more," Brandyn Thompson says.

But Nebraska wasn't even really on his mind.

Known by few people, he actually silently committed to USC early in the recruiting process.

It took persistence for the Huskers to get in the mix. One of Jackson's 7-on-7 coaches had been coached by Husker receivers coach Keith Williams. He asked Jackson if he was thinking about Nebraska. "Nah," the recruit answered.

Jackson had talked with secondary coach Brian Stewart a couple of times, but it didn't click right away. "I was like, 'Eh, Nebraska,' that's a great offer but it just kind of seemed like one of the other ones at the time.'"

Stewart and Williams kept pushing. You're badly wanted, Williams told him.

Jackson was running out of visits. He also thought Nebraska would be a fun visit. Why not? He picked Michigan State week.

Jackson visited Michigan the week before. The Big House. That's a big deal. Then he walked into Memorial Stadium.

"I was like, Michigan, I don't care if it's 110,000 or not, it wasn't like this," Jackson says.

He remembers a fan walking up to him, knowing his name, introducing him to his son. He remembers after that memorable Husker win, walking past the volleyball team, just back from a road trip. They were talking football. Everything, football.

"It was like something I never seen before," Jackson says. "It was like a dream. I honestly thought I was dreaming."

* * *

Now he just needed that Big Red picture painted for his family.

Jackson admits he usually kept his words few when his mom asked about a recruiting visit. "It was fine." This time he kept talking.

"I let the coaches know, 'Coach, I love you, but you gotta talk to my parents,'" Jackson says. "That's when they made it a priority every time they came out to talk to my mom, make sure they just vibed with her, showing her everything she didn't get to see that I did."

One day, Jackson's mom said it: "I like Coach Stew. I think you should go to Nebraska."

Yep, Jackson responded. That's the move.

Truth is, his parents embraced the idea of him getting away from the fast-placed lifestyle they figured could surround a player in Los Angeles.

"When I say this kid is determined to go to the NFL and get drafted, when I say he's going to give it his all like this is his job, I think Nebraska's the perfect fit for him," Horton says. "I don't have to worry about nothing to do with football because that's naturally in him. ... So I just need someone on his back for academics."

Mom hasn't been to Lincoln. She's not too keen on flying, but is thinking about coming in a few weeks. "I want to go."

You could say Jackson will be off and running then, but truthfully, he's been in the race a few years now.

"Nebraska was never somewhere I thought I would go," he says. "I just matured through the process. ... It made me realize what you think at first is your dream school, and stuff like that, is not always the best fit."

He loves Husker fans. Even the occasional overexuberance of some on Twitter.

Right after he committed, he picked up about 3,000 new followers. Whoa.

"All that stuff to a kid is like, 'Dang, I'm the man," Jackson says. "All that big stuff is good. I enjoy all that. I show the fans nothing but love."

He knows the best way to do it. His next sentence shows he knows.

No playing around here. It's all serious when he says, "That's why I'm going to make sure I can try to bring Nebraska back to its dominant times."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7439 or On Twitter @HuskerExtraBC.


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