By Jon Wilner
DeSean Jackson often gets compared to some of the greatest players in Cal history - to Tony Gonzalez for his big-play ability, to Deltha O'Neal for his sensational return skills, to Marshawn Lynch for his knack for turning nothing into something. But when it comes to Jackson's ability to inspire, former Cal quarterback Mike Pawlawski mentions two names familiar to college football fans everywhere. "He's like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus rolled into one, because he makes you want to believe," Pawlawski said. "Every time he touches the ball, you want to believe that he's got a chance to do something incredible. And that's what fans love." Jackson is an All-America receiver, one of the best punt returners in NCAA history, a Heisman Trophy candidate and a primary reason Cal is ranked No. 12 in the country entering its season-opening showdown Saturday against No. 15 Tennessee. He also fills the highlight reel as well as anyone in Bay Area college football history - a 172-pound junior who keeps fans on the edge of their seats, waiting, hoping, believing they'll see something spectacular.
Few Cal, Stanford or San Jose State players have had his breathtaking speed, flair for the dramatic and strike-from-anywhere arsenal. Sure, O'Neal and Lynch are in the discussion. Same with Cal's Russell White and Stanford's Darrin Nelson and Glyn Milburn. But what separates Jackson is his ratio of touchdowns to touches. For example, Lynch scored once every 17 times he touched the ball last season. Jackson scored once every seven. In that respect, Jackson reminds Cal receivers coach Dan Ferrigno of another former Bear with a knack for big plays. "I know they are different, but I liken DeSean's playmaking ability to Tony Gonzalez," said Ferrigno, who was on staff during Gonzalez's brilliant career. "When you needed a play, Tony made it. That's what DeSean is like."
It's more than his speed Jackson has scored 21 touchdowns in 24 games at Cal. He scored on his first collegiate catch and his first collegiate punt return - both in the 2005 opener. Last season, he averaged 18 yards per touch and had 28 plays of 20 yards or more, including a 95-yard punt return against Arizona. "He split us faster than any human being I've ever seen," Arizona Coach Mike Stoops said. Jackson isn't only fast, he's quick - possessing the ability to go from standing still to full speed in half a blink.
But there's more to his success than a 4.3-second 40-yard dash. Jackson understands how to leverage that speed, how to make cornerbacks and safeties think he's going one way when he's really going another. "A lot of guys try to do it like DeSean," Pawlawski said, "but their body doesn't listen to their mind." Jackson, whose brother Byron played receiver at San Jose State and for the NFL's Kansas City Chiefs, also understands the art of route-running in a way many collegians do not. He sets up defenders, leans with his shoulders, plants and turns precisely. And he has taken to studying film on his own, not just of defensive backs but also of an opponent's punt coverage. "He understands the craft," Ferrigno said. Jackson also has tremendous field vision. At Long Beach Poly, he used to jog off the field and tell the coaches what was happening. He processes movement so quickly, according to legendary Poly coach Don Norford, that he can spot seams in the secondary or punt coverage just as they are forming.
That allows Jackson to set up big plays, especially when returning punts. The best example came last season against Oregon, when Jackson fielded a punt and took a few steps to his left, luring the coverage in that direction. Then he reversed field, found the wall in front of him and darted 65 yards for a touchdown. In two seasons, Jackson has taken five punts back for touchdowns in a mere 26 returns - an astonishing 19.2 percent touchdown rate. "I visualize a lot," he said. "And I don't think too much." Building himself up
Jackson learned the game by playing with and against older kids. When Byron's career ended, in 1993, he made sure his little brother stayed involved in the game. "Some players, like myself, get to a high level and are surprised they're there," Byron said. "But DeSean thinks he belongs, so that when the lights are on, he's comfortable. A lot of guys tense up in situations like that." Jackson spent part of his summer at Cal and part working out with Byron in Southern California, focusing on core strength so that, even at 172 pounds, he can run through arm tackles. He reported for training camp in the best shape of his life and, despite all the media attention - he was on a regional cover of ESPN The Magazine - is focused on making an impact as a receiver, punt returner or even as a decoy.
In previous seasons, Jackson would occasionally get frustrated when the ball wasn't thrown his way. "He has matured quite a bit because the attention has forced him to do that," Bears Coach Jeff Tedford said. "He understands his role in the offense. He knows the ball is going to go different places." Much to the chagrin of Cal fans. "People can't wait for this guy to touch the ball," Ferrigno said, "and neither can we."