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Richmond defensive lineman and 2019 Preseason Colonial Athletic Association Defensive Player of the Year Maurice Jackson will do plenty of difficult things this season. His 56-yard touchdown Week 1 against Jacksonville isn’t one of them.
“Those things are nice, but to pick up a ball and to carry it into the end zone is not really the toughest thing to do for a defensive lineman,” said Spiders coach Russ Huesman.
It may not be the toughest, but it’s definitely “the coolest,” as Jackson put it.
“It doesn’t really happen a lot, so for it to happen in the first week was pretty fun,” he said.
And the Spiders had fun with it. After Jackson ran back the fumble forced by his partner on the line, Colby Ritten, teammates pantomimed photos of Jackson striking poses that would impress Derek Zoolander.
That show of exuberance and “pure emotion,” as Jackson described it, reflects the Spiders’ desire to break out in the Colonial in 2019.
“Go out there and prove ‘em wrong,” he described as the team focus at the outset of this new season. “Going 4-7 last year, 6-5 the year before, everyone’s written us off as a team that won’t do damage CAA. But we really know we can…All the hard work we put in showed off in that first game, now we have to continue to make sure everybody sees it.”
A scoop-and-score is a nice highlight-reel moment, but it’s the less glamorous work Jackson puts in daily that shapes his future as perhaps the best defender in FCS, an NFL draft prospect, and a leader in life away from football. That’s also the story of Jackson’s rise at Richmond.
Jackson arrived on Richmond’s campus from Levittown, Pennsylvania, where he played a linebacker-safety hybrid position. He excelled at it, too, earning all-state recognition.
But in his first year at UR, playing on a defense coordinated by Chris Cosh (now at Delaware), Jackson switched to the line.
“It was a little rough,” Jackson said of the adjustment. “I was always playing in space. So going down there, in college — not to mention, the Division I level — it was almost a culture shock. I wasn’t used to being in tight quarters, having to use my hands more, having to hit the same person every play. Which isn’t a problem, but after a while, it was like, ‘Dang, I’ve been hitting the same guy all day, what the heck?’
“It took some getting used to, and I’m still getting used to it,” he continued. “Defensive line isn’t a positon where you can go into and feel at home off the bat. So I’m still getting used to it.”
If this isn’t Jackson fully accustomed to his role, that’s a terrifying prospect for opposing quarterbacks. He earned All-American recognition in 2018 after recording 10 sacks and CAA-leading statistics of 15 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles.
He’s flourished on the line in part due to his background playing in space, combining the explosion and hand-fighting skills learned at end with the reactionary qualities that made him a prep standout at linebacker/safety, all at about 280 pounds.
And Jackson’s willingness to take on new positions should enhance his NFL prospects. He can play at outside linebacker, five-technique, and three-technique without losing effectiveness. According to Huesman, Jackson’s ability to shed blockers has only grown in his time captaining coordinator Adam Braithwaite’s defense.
“The thing he’s really tried to do is become a great leader, not only in his room with the defensive line but a leader throughout this football team,” Huesman said. “He’s always been a practice guy, and vocal guy in practice, but taking it to the whole defense and taking it to the football team is something he’s done throughout the summer and this first week — really putting this team on his shoulders.”
Leadership is a quality coaches often repeat about top players. For Jackson, it’s a trait that can transcend football.
Part of the behind-the-scenes work that goes into his rising stature is in the classroom. Jackson is taking a class load this fall that includes biology and anthropology. He’s completing his capstone course for his major in sociology, considering a future after football that gives him the opportunity to mold youngsters as a teacher and coach.
“I’ve had my eyes on teaching, it’s something I’ve always wanted: to help people in areas I can cover, kids in high schools who are impoverished,” he said. “Or mentoring, because I had someone do it for me to get me to where I am.”
All that work put in elsewhere presents Jackson with those celebratory moments — like his touchdown in Week 1.