Friday, November 10, 2006

Arizona Daily Star: Jackson Gives a New Meaning to Special

Some unsolicited advice for Saturday's homecoming game: Save the bathroom trips till halftime. Do not — repeat, do not — try to sneak away when you see the special teams take the field on fourth downs. You might miss all the excitement. DeSean Jackson, 19, just might be the best punt returner in the country. The Golden Bears' standout has returned three punts for scores this season, and — as a sophomore — is receiving comparisons to former USC star Reggie Bush. "He's as quick as Reggie — it's that kind of explosiveness," said UA coach Mike Stoops, whose Wildcats (4-5, 2-4) will face No. 8 Cal (9-1, 6-0) on Saturday. "He's very dynamic like that. He's probably the fastest, most explosive player in the conference." Jackson is averaging 17.21 yards per return this season, a mark that is third nationally and first in the Pac-10. His three touchdowns — on 19 returns — is tied for first in the country with Oregon State's Sammie Stroughter. When he's not returning punts, Jackson is the Bears' leading receiver with 680 yards and eight touchdown catches.

But returns, more than catches, "can definitely put the other team behind and help your team out," Jackson said. "It helps you win games." Jackson has been using his speed to lift his team since playing Pop Warner football in Long Beach, Calif. While playing at Poly High School, one of the nation's best football factories, Jackson flourished on returns. He took two punt returns for touchdowns on his way to earning Parade All-America honors as a senior. Jackson took advantage of his lone chance on special teams as a Cal freshman.

Playing in his first collegiate game, he returned a punt 49 yards for a score. He was elevated to the Bears' top return spot this season, and has been a runaway success. "Any time you have DeSean, who can do the things he can, making people miss and hit things as fast as he does, it creates a huge advantage for you," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. Opponents say Jackson is blessed with soft hands and a good eye for the ball. Returners often have to drift backward or forward, depending on the trajectory of the punt. Being able to catch the ball, plant, scan the defense, and go, takes major smarts and ability. Jackson must also be a quick learner. While all teams place importance on special teams, the actual returns are rarely practiced. Most teams work on special teams for one segment — 30 minutes tops — per day. "Then you go about your day," Jackson said. "Back to offense and defense."

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