LINCOLN — The NFL has been the dream on Lamar Jackson’s horizon for so long — the thing he worked for and prayed to be a part of — now that the 2020 draft is here, it’d be easy for his heart to race and his mind to be overwhelmed by the moment.
The Nebraska cornerback thinks he’ll be selected at some point Friday or Saturday. Based on what he’s heard from teams, he’s confident it’ll be somewhere in the third or fourth round, ahead of his late-round projections from various mock drafts. Jackson is back in Sacramento, California, and his mom, Catherine Horton, has set up the garage for a multiday gathering with food on the grill and family members Jackson doesn’t always get to see.
This weekend, in a sense, is for them, too. The folks who have long been in Jackson’s corner. Jackson can sense their excitement.
But he’s trying to take the advice of his Nebraska position coach, Travis Fisher, who was taken in the second round of the 2002 NFL draft. Stay close to the phone and the TV. Be calm. Don’t sweat this. It’ll happen.
“I’m taking it slow, trying not to be nervous,” Jackson said. “I feel like I’m getting a lot of external anxiety from family and friends, guys who are excited for me. I try to act like it’s normal. It’s an honor to even be going through this. I’ve been waiting for this moment all my life.”
The journey to this weekend has been a little rocky — especially in 2017 and 2018 — and, in the last month, a little strange. NU’s March 12 pro day was, in essence, the past one conducted around the country before the coronavirus pandemic and measures to slow its rapid spread shut down all in-person NFL operations.
Whereas Jackson might have flown to various team headquarters to meet with coaches or trained somewhere else in the nation, he hunkered down and trained in Lincoln.
Through former Husker receiver Mike Williams — a free agent candidate for the draft — Jackson was connected to Lincoln trainer Jacob Cervantes, who runs Hybrid Performance. Jackson, Williams, Carlos and Khalil Davis, Mohamed Barry and Alex Davis all used Cervantes over the past month. It helped, Jackson said, that Nebraska didn’t have a shelter-in-place order like California, or some other state where he might have trained.
As a result, he arrived in his hometown of Sacramento just last week.
“Ten to 15 teams” have been in regular contact, Jackson said, with the Bears and Raiders talking most to him. League feedback has been good, he said.
“There are a lot of teams who are interested where I’m at least on their board,” Jackson said.
Two years ago, when Jackson was coming off a disappointing sophomore season, that may not have been the case. Jackson’s talent — especially in press coverage — was evident, but he wasn’t consistent, he didn’t tackle well and he’d already had two position coaches in as many years.
Fisher was his third position coach. Erik Chinander was his third defensive coordinator. And, in the first half of 2018, he was briefly benched after a personal foul penalty against Purdue.
“At the end of the day, I wasn’t where I wanted to be,” Jackson said. “You might think you’re good, but you’re not as good as you think.”
For Jackson, the conversations after that — with Fisher, Chinander and coach Scott Frost — helped change the trajectory of his career. So did the birth of his son, Legacy, in spring 2019. And so did seeing a former teammate, Stanley Morgan, go undrafted last season. Morgan did everything right — on and off the field — and, as a free agent, he made the Cincinnati Bengals’ roster and even had three catches. But if Morgan could go undrafted, Jackson realized, a lot of players could.
“That was the realest thing for me to see,” Jackson said. “It ain’t going to be given. It’s a business.”
Jackson’s senior season — three interceptions, 12 pass breakups, two forced fumbles — was called a “breakthrough” by NFL.com’s analysis. He was Nebraska’s defensive MVP and second-team All-Big Ten in a league full of elite defensive backs. He believes his 40-yard dash time of 4.58 seconds was good for a corner of his size — 6-foot-3, 208 pounds — and length. The size/athleticism attributes that made Jackson a top-100 recruit in 2016 remain assets for the 2020 NFL draft.
So Jackson will keep his phone close and his eyes on the TV this weekend. He’ll eat Mom’s cooking. He’ll celebrate with family. And he’ll remind himself the NFL journey has just started.
“I’m feeling pretty good — great morale, spirit’s good — because I’ve been using the draft to move me forward, keep on the right path, the right mindset I need to have to be ready,” Jackson said. “The draft is still going to happen, corona’s going to end, I’m going to have to report eventually. Eventually things are going to be normal, to where I need to be ready to play football. So I’ll be ready.”
Photos: Nebraskans selected in first round of NFL draft
This is a collection of football players who graduated from high schools in Nebraska and then became first-round NFL draft picks after college. Did we miss anyone? Let us know by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org