Monday, September 03, 2007

Contra Costa Times: Jackson shines as a nation watches

Can Iman

I did what Tennessee's punt-coverage unit couldn't do Saturday night: I tracked down Cal's DeSean Jackson before he could get away from me.  About an hour after Cal's season-opening win, Jackson agreed to one last media interview, and I had one simple topic.  The Heisman Trophy. He wants it. To get it, he must have highlight-reel plays each week, of course, and Cal must be just as consistent in the win column. So far, so good.  Jackson has had to talk plenty about his Heisman ambition, and, yes, such sermons are a virtual obligation for any candidate. Saturday, he finally got the chance to speak through his actions, and he delivered a riveting, 77-yard punt return for a touchdown that gave Cal a 21-14 lead in their eventual 45-31 victory. "There's been a lot of talk about me and the Heisman, about my status. It's good to show everyone what I'm about," Jackson said. "I'm capable of making big, huge plays." That huge return Saturday night was the biggest special-teams touchdown by Cal in 25 years, when "The Play" seized the national spotlight. "The Return" was so big because it came with the nation finally watching Cal again, seeing if the Bears could upend an SEC team and if Jackson could shine on prime-time TV. He may have been more relieved than anyone when he dashed those 77 yards. See, we tend to hype up our sports stars -- and 77-yard punt returns -- too much. But Jackson could be worth the hype, including the Web site ( that Cal launched in honor of his Heisman candidacy.

"It's big," Jackson said of the Heisman. "I can't think of anyone at Cal having done that. It'd be huge for the university."  Cal has had 12 top-10 finishers in the Heisman voting, including 1974 runner-up Chuck Muncie. One weekend into this season, Jackson definitely deserves a spot in the Heisman race. Beside his lone punt return, he had four catches for 45 yards and he ran 21 yards on a reverse. He must do more, however. More receptions. More reverses. More returns (perhaps on kickoffs, please). One dazzling play every Saturday won't be enough.  The "ESPN Experts Poll" clocks Jackson as the seventh-rated Heisman prospect. The six ahead of him each had multiple-touchdown efforts in their openers, that six-pack being: Arkansas' Darren McFadden, West Virginia's Steve Slaton, USC's John David Booty, Louisville's Brian Brohm, Hawaii's Colt Brennan and Michigan's Mike Hart. Jackson should be rated No. 1, however, considering the stage he and the Bears were on Saturday. Meanwhile, he found out about the on-field toll a Heisman candidate endures. "You got crushed on that one catch," I told him. "I got crushed a couple times," Jackson said as blood seeped through a white bandage wrapped around his left hand. "Being up for the Heisman, people are out there trying to take your head off. "If they think I'm the best and they take me out, they'll think they're the best. I've got a target on me, and that's all right." Not to crush his goal, but I had to point out that the Heisman doesn't guarantee a bright future at football's next level (see: 2003 winner Jason White and 2001 recipient Eric Crouch). Jackson shook me off like a Tennessee would-be tackler.

"It definitely shows the dedication of being a great football player," Jackson said in defense of the Heisman. "You've got to prepare week in, week out, and be here to do what your team needs. "When I make plays, it sparks the team." Jackson is surrounded by explosive players on Cal. The Bears don't rely on him for every point on their scoreboard. Can Arkansas, West Virginia, Louisville and Hawaii make the same claim about their star? Saturday night, we saw wide receivers Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins -- whom Jackson calls his "compadres" -- catch touchdown passes. We also saw Justin Forsett emerge as a bona fide every-down running back. Freshman Jahvid Best wowed the sold out crowd with his dazzling speed on kick returns and a few offensive cameos. And Nate Longshore just might be a Heisman candidate, too, before all's said and done, especially if the Bears finish up in a BCS bowl. Yet I knew I was witnessing something special when Jackson produced his sixth touchdown in 27 career punt returns. It was like the final flight of an endangered species. Wise teams won't punt ever again to Jackson. It was as if Barry Bonds got an easy fastball right down the middle. Then Tennessee stopped pitching, er, punting to Jackson. The Bay Area was the center of the baseball universe during Bonds' pursuit of Hank Aaron's home run record. We ruled the NBA playoffs during the Warriors' captivating first-round upset of Dallas. If Jackson and Cal keep up their fine work, this area could be the center of college football's world, and Jackson could end up saying "Hi" to the Heisman.

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