There weren’t many highlights as a team for FIU during their winless season in 2020. However, one of the pleasant surprises that will play an important role in the Panthers’ success this year is the emergence of linebacker Daniel Jackson. The North Carolina native arrived at FIU in 2017 as an unheralded safety, who caught the attention of Butch Davis following a friend’s recommendation of Jackson, who was committed to play for Army prior to Davis offering an opportunity.
“I got a call from a friend of mine in North Carolina telling me there’s a young man here who’s being accepted to West Point and that automatically tells you that he has great grades, character and integrity,” said Davis.
In his four seasons as a Panther, Jackson has been a team captain for two seasons and quickly earned the respect of his coaches for his standout play on special teams, where he’s led the unit in tackles over the span of his collegiate career. After seeing spot duty on defense as the SAM linebacker in 2019, Jackson saw extended reps at MIKE linebacker last year due to injuries — and made the most of his opportunity. Enough so to the point where Davis named him a starter entering fall camp.
“Almost immediately after coming to FIU, he became an impact player on special teams and last year, he benefited from the players in front of him not being available,” said Davis. “He got thrust into a role of having to play and all of a sudden it’s look at how good he is, he’s very smart and instincitive and now he’s a starting linebacker.”
The 6-2, 230-pound Jackson is widely respected by coaches for his business-like approach and attention to detail and that dedication has resulted in him officially being the starting middle linebacker for the Panthers as they open the season in two days against Long Island.
Who exactly is Jackson as a football player — his former coordinators and position coaches at FIU tell the story of the unassuming linebacker.
“I absolutely loved coaching him because he embraced any position or situation,” said former FIU special teams coordinator James Vollono, who coached Jackson on the unit from 2017-2019. “I can’t emphasize this enough, he’s very smart and his ability to see the big picture allowed him to learn individual techniques on special teams easily, when he didn’t get something quickly, he put in the work to learn.”
After playing exclusively on the special teams unit as a freshman and sophomore, Jackson started to see reps on defense as a junior. Former FIU defensive coordinator Jeff Copp took note of Jackson’s work ethic as an underclassman — which he recalled when assuming the DC role in 2019.
“I’ll never forget, it’s his freshman year and he wasn’t playing at all on defense,” said Copp. “It was probably a Tuesday or a Wednesday night at about 7:30, and he was sitting in the special teams room watching tape, because he understood that was his role and sometimes you see guys that are juniors and seniors do that, but for a true freshman to be in there understanding that, for me it sums up who he is — he’s going to be accountable and he is not going to let the football program down.”
In an era where player movement is common and the transfer portal is beginning to resemble college football’s version of free agency, Jackson’s dedication to the special teams role is one that Copp notes as rare.
“The reason he’s successful in special teams and overall is his dedication...nobody comes to college wanting to be the L3 on the kickoff team,” said Copp. “Because of that, a lot of kids don’t put in the time and study and understand what special teams is and that’s a shame because there are plenty of opportunities there.”
Harrison Green coached the special teams unit in 2020 and speaks about Jackson’s presence and authenticity in his demeanor that’s earned him the respect of his teammates.
“When I think of (Daniel), I think of me rolling into the meeting room at 7:15 in the morning and he’s just sitting there straight up in a seat, not tired but ready to go,” said Green. “It’s not that he’s not a vocal leader, because he turns that part of his ability on when it needs to be turned on, but guys don’t listen to players who talk too much. It’s the guys who speak when there need to be words spoken and that’s Dan, he’s a humble kid.”
Despite finally earning a major full-time role on defense, Jackson still wants to continue playing — and contributing on the special teams unit. Current special teams coordinator Casey Horny has already noted Jackson’s presence in the short time Horny has been with the program.
“Daniel is a guy who shows up on film on damn near every snap and he’s an excellent leader and an extension of the coaches on the field,” said Horny. “He’s also very unselfish. Most guys, when they get to that level and become a starting linebacker, they want to back off teams and get some rest but he hasn’t asked for that.”
When asked about his opportunity to start and any frustrations that he may have had about earning his way through special teams, Jackson’s answer is fitting to the widespread praise that his coaches bestow upon him.
“It’s not something I really think about, the most I can do is go out there and do my job and try to help the team win games, that’s what’s most important,” said Jackson.