BERKELEY, Calif. -- Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer talked tough before playing California last week, promising to punt the ball to Cal's DeSean Jackson and take his chances. Fulmer liked his punter, liked his coverage team and figured if Britton Colquitt kicked the ball high enough and the Volunteers covered well enough, what could happen? The first time Colquitt punted, Jackson settled under the ball, put a matador move on the gunner, who appeared to have a clear shot at Jackson before shooting harmlessly past him, cut across the field, got two crushing blocks, then used what only can be described as some sort of combination dance step to leave another Tennessee player flailing at air. "He started, he backpedaled and he did that little karaoke step all in one move," said back-up quarterback Kevin Riley. "You just don't see that." By the time Jackson turned upfield, Volunteers strewn on the ground behind him, he had enough space to turn the return into a 77-yard, scoring, YouTube favorite. "I had my dad record the game, and when I got home I watched it on my DVR," Jackson said. "I looked over and over at that return."
Jackson credited the blocks from Greg Van Hoesen and Thomas DeCoud for springing him. But he did a lot on his own, too. The next two times Tennessee punted, Fulmer had Colquitt kick the ball out of bounds. With Colquitt distracted by Jackson, one went 13 yards. "That's always the fear when you're trying to kick it away from somebody," Golden Bears coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's a lot easier said than done, because sometimes it goes off the side of your foot." It's what makes Jackson the most dangerous player in the conference, maybe in college football. His scoring return against Tennessee snapped a 14-14 tie and influenced the Volunteers' special teams strategy the rest of the game, which Cal won 45-31. This despite Tennessee having fair warning. The 6-foot, 172-pound junior entered the game as a Heisman Trophy candidate with his own Web site and the major college record for career punt return touchdowns within reach. Wes Welker of Texas Tech (2000-03) and Antonio Perkins of Oklahoma (2001-04) share the record with eight. Welker had 152 career punt returns, Perkins had 113. Jackson has six touchdowns in 27 returns.
Include his career touchdown receptions, and Jackson has scored 22 times in 25 games. He came into the season averaging 17.1 yards per catch. Even with Tennessee paying extra attention and knocking him around in the secondary when they had the chance, Jackson still caught four passes Saturday. "This guy has playmaking abilities like nobody I've ever had at receiver," said receivers coach Dan Ferrigno, who came to Cal from Oregon. "He makes a lot of plays. Things you don't think he can do, he does. "What he has is what Joe Montana, Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan had -- vision. They saw it. This guy sees it, the whole field. On punt returns he sees everything. The same thing when he's out there running routes. It's a sense that other people don't have." Jackson's 4.3-second speed in the 40-yard dash helps, too. It comes in a package with instant acceleration and an ability to change directions without sacrificing velocity. "He's so quick out of his breaks," Ferrigno said. "Samie Parker was the same way when we had him at Oregon. He stops on a dime and then, bang, he's coming back to the ball. It took some getting used to for our quarterbacks. You're waiting for him to break, and he's out of his break."
Some of what Jackson does on the field is the result of natural ability. But he has worked hard at it, too. His older brother, Byron, played in the NFL for Kansas City. Byron put DeSean through receiving drills when DeSean was 4 years old. "He taught me a lot of little things," Jackson said. "He's always been there to inspire me, trying to help me get where I am today. How good I am is because of the time and effort he put in." Jackson appears to be nearly a complete player, although it probably would help at the next level if he carried more weight. Even now, he sometimes gets overmatched physically. Ferrigno said when Jackson cracks back on a linebacker or defensive end, it sometimes looks like "a water balloon hitting a battleship. But he'll try. He's not scared." It's a good thing, because Jackson is a marked man. Expect him to draw a crowd this season, on and off the field. The media crush already has became so overwhelming that Cal's media relations staff tries to channel most mid-week interview requests into a single news conference.
On Saturdays, if Jackson consistently draws double coverage, it should open opportunities for wide receivers Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan. Hawkins caught seven passes against Tennessee, and Jordan had a scoring reception. "I don't like to set personal goals," Jackson said. "I like to be free to come out on the field and just play to the best of my abilities. My goals are team goals. I want to win the national championship, man." With Jackson on the field, it's beginning to look like a real possibility. At least his teammates think so. Last Saturday, everybody in Memorial Stadium had some understanding of what Jackson could do with a ball in his hands. The Cal fans knew, the Tennessee fans knew, the broadcast team in the television booth knew, the Cal players knew, the Cal coaches knew. Even Fulmer should have known. "After all the hype, after everything he deals with, then for him to take the opening punt return to the house, that was amazing," Jordan said. "And, to do it at that time, to break the game open and give us the momentum, that's the kind of player he is. He steps up in big times. "All we can do is support him and ride with him."