TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Under head coach Nick Saban‘s direction, Alabama determines its team captains a little differently from most athletic programs. They’re selected by the coaches for each game of the regular season, but then the players vote for the permanent captains, who serve as such for the bowl game/playoff.
This year’s captains, revealed at the annual team banquet the night following the SEC Championship Game, are Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, Cam Robinson…and Eddie Jackson.
“For the team to recognize Eddie even though he didn’t play in the second half of the season just shows how much he meant to the team,” Allen said.
That’s right. Jackson suffered a season-ending leg fracture during Alabama’s eighth game, against Texas A&M on Oct. 22. The leader of the secondary’s senior year was over having made just 24 tackles, but he also scored three touchdowns, two on punt returns and one off an interception.
Yet the Crimson Tide still placed Jackson alongside the others because, as Saban put it, they had “the ultimate respect of their teammates.” Along with the honor, each will have his name, footprints and handprints set in concrete during a spring ceremony at Denny Chimes, located at the heart of campus.
So it’s an especially big deal at Alabama, and one the team doesn’t take lightly.
“If I could have picked captains, those are four guys that I would have picked,” Saban said. “I think just that many players on the team have that much respect for Eddie in terms of not only what he did when he was playing, but also the way he’s continued to be a part of the team when he’s not playing.”
A perfect example of that was what happened after Jackson was carted off to the locker room. Even though Alabama had just scored a big touchdown against the then-No. 6 Aggies, the sellout crowd at Bryant-Denny Stadium was loudly chanting “Ed-die, Ed-die!”
Both that night and during the subsequent weeks, his teammates regularly posted #PlayFor4 and #DoItFor4 on social media.
Alabama had a bye week to try out its contingency plans before visiting LSU, a trip that Jackson made with his teammates.
“Eddie told us before the game, ‘If this was your last game, how would you play?'” sophomore safety Ronnie Harrison said. “We were just out there, he got to crying, saying, ‘Man, I wish I could be out there.’ It means a lot, just coming from him, because, I mean, he came back for his senior year just to come back and get this championship.
“I’m just playing for him, man, because he wished he could be out there.”
Instead, Jackson, on crutches following surgery, became a sort of de facto coach. In addition to Harrison having to take over making the calls and adjustments in the secondary, sophomore Minkah Fitzpatrick slid over to safety in certain situations, juniors Tony Brown and Hootie Jones got more playing time and freshman Trevon Diggs took over as punt returner.
Jackson was as busy as anyone at Death Valley that night, helping make defensive reads, telling the replacements what to look for and trying to calm Diggs’ nerves. The Crimson Tide subsequently did something that occurs in the rarest of circumstances: gave him a game ball from the 10-0 shutout victory.
“I’m not big on doing that kind of stuff,” Saban said. “The players wanted to do that, and I wanted to do it. He went on the trip with us because the team means a lot to him, and we miss him a lot.”
It still does. Although Harrison and others did a terrific job stepping up their roles, it’s probably not a coincidence that Alabama had its incredible 10-game streak of scoring a non-offensive touchdown snapped. It didn’t notch one in the month of November, but then had two in the SEC Championship Game.
A team just can’t replace a player like that, or plug someone in and expect the same results.
Senior tight end O.J. Howard pointed to Jackson’s 85-yard punt return for a touchdown against Ole Miss, helping lead the comeback from an 24-3 deficit, as his favorite moment of the season:
“We were kind of down and momentum was going their way and he returned the punt, I think, right before halftime,” Howard said. “That was a great memory; a turning moment for our team and it was a big pickup for us.”
Jackson also scored one of the Crimson Tide’s 10 defensive touchdowns (five interceptions, five fumbles and it also scored one off a blocked punt) during Alabama’s home opener against Western Kentucky.
“We needed to score,” Jackson after the 38-10 victory.
But the pick-six helped confirm his status as one of the top safeties in the Southeastern Conference, if not the nation, after moving from cornerback before the 2015 national championship season.
“It was real frustrating making that change, basically coming in as a freshman all over again; you have to learn different plays and everything. Different guys on the other side, you were giving the calls,” Jackson said about having the unenviable task of trying to replace All-American Landon Collins.
Instead, he became a living example overcoming adversity.
When it comes to being motivated, Jackson says he looks to his mother, father and sister more than anyone else.
“They just push me to be better every day,” he said. “You know, they call, my mom sends me bible scriptures every day. I talk to my dad. You know, they never lost faith in me over anything, and they just stay on top of me and push me.
“Most definitely [they help me]. Especially in camp as a freshman, making that transition from high school, it’s kind of tough, so you need your family there to comfort you as well.”
That from the man who wears a tattoo on his arm that reads, “Tough times don’t last, tough people do.” He calls it a motto to live by because depending on how tough you are, “you can overcome anything.”
Jackson has already proved it over and over again, even as a recruit in 2013 when the consensus 3-star prospect at Boyd Anderson High School in Lauderdale Lakes, Florida, was overlooked by a lot of other top programs.
Despite that, he played his first year at Alabama, but en route to taking over as a starter as a sophomore, suffered a torn ACL in the spring. Not backing down from the injury and declining a redshirt, Jackson played in 11 games in 2014, when the Crimson Tide didn’t have much depth at the position.
Then came the position change along with Geno Matias-Smith, and there was a real concern, Saban included, about how well the converted corners would hold up while playing the more physically demanding interior positions. Jackson responded with six interceptions in 2015 to lead the SEC, and his 230 return yards shattered the school record of 163 set by Hootie Ingram in 1952.
That led to second-team All-American honors from the Walter Camp Foundation and Football Writers Association of America, and third-team status from the Associated Press. He was also named the defensive MVP of the College Football Playoff National Championship Game after making a big interception.
Jackson was on target to top all that this season—and was still named second-team All-SEC by the coaches—although there was always a slim chance he would have been named a first-team All-American due to the likes of Malik Hooker, Jabrill Peppers and Jamal Adams all having exceptional seasons.
“This is an amazing year for safeties—the deepest I’ve ever seen, actually,” Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller said. “In a normal year, Jackson is probably pushing to be the first or second free safety off the board instead of looking like a potential late Day 2 pick.”
Miller was high on Jackson before his injury and doesn’t see it significantly changing his draft stock, “assuming all goes well with the rehab and such.” He lists him ninth in his latest position rankings, but also as its “biggest question mark.” Regardless, NFL teams will keep a close eye on Jackson, and he could still receive invitations to the Senior Bowl and NFL combine.
“Typically, if [an injured] player has been invited and accepts, we will try to get them here for a day of meetings and interviews,” Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage said. “We did this with Aaron Murray a few years ago. I suspect Eddie will be in that same category.”
But that’s all later. Jackson is still trying to help the Crimson Tide win another national championship any way he can, injury or not, and will be on the field for the coin toss when Alabama faces Washington in the Peach Bowl to open the College Football Playoff.
“It’s just wonderful he gets the opportunity to be a captain,” senior linebacker Reuben Foster said.
It’s an honor that was well deserved.
Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
Christopher Walsh is a lead SEC college football writer. Follow Christopher on Twitter @WritingWalsh.
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