It’s nearly seven years later, but Todd Jackson still vividly remembers when the turning point came in his son’s career as an offensive lineman.
Donovan Jackson had been playing the position since he was 7 years old, starting in tackle leagues at 8 and establishing a reputation as a talented and solidly built football player. But the aggressive nature with which a person of his ilk should be playing on the offensive line did not start setting in until a 10-year-old Donovan made a couple soft hits during a Texas travel league game.
Sure, he had laid down a pair of blocks that were effective enough, but when he sauntered over to the sidelines, he got an earful from the team’s offensive line coach … his dad.
“After a couple of hits, his guy was still standing,” Todd told Eleven Warriors. “I went up to him after, and I said, ‘Why is your guy still standing up?’ He was like, ‘I made the block.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but he’s still standing. Flatten him, and go find somebody else.’
“It finally clicked for him that it’s not just about moving the man. It’s about finishing the man, going after somebody else and finishing them, and then who else is still standing? The whistle hasn’t blown yet. Play to that echo of the whistle and keep going.”
So that’s exactly what he did. His father’s tongue lashing for not being brutal enough set in instantly and triggered him to put down some pain. His goal on a football field quickly became seeking out wrong-colored jerseys and finishing out plays with pancake blocks.
“It’s something that I always had from little league,” Donovan said. “I would get angry if I didn’t throw my guy on the ground. I took pride in moving my guy from Point A to Point B and then going to the second level and doing the exact same thing, and then going to the third level and doing the exact same thing.”
That mission never stopped, and it will be a long time before it ever does. That nastiness and aggression he formed in elementary school has only evolved over the years. He mauled his way to praise as one of the most ferocious junior offensive linemen in the country and one who, on Wednesday, became a linchpin in Ohio State’s 2021 recruiting class as its ninth commitment in the cycle.
Even now, Donovan remembers that game that Todd – who played both ways as an offensive guard and defensive tackle at Westlake High School in the Cleveland suburbs – harkens back to, and he recalls all the practices when Todd would unapologetically be much more physical with the tackling bag or the arm shields on Donovan than on his teammates, expecting and pushing Donovan to prove why he’s the best. To prove it wasn’t just his physical stature that should make him imposing. That he needed to be mentally stronger, too.
Strong he was and more imposing he became, enough for the 6-foot-4, 310-pound boulder to develop into an elite offensive line prospect in middle school and high school.
But Donovan making powerful plays as a fourth-grader is obviously not the sole reason he’s put himself in this position.
If it wasn’t for Jonathon Younger, for example, coming into his life when he did, Donovan may have grown into a Division I football recruit – maybe even a fairly hot commodity for having size and raw skill – but he wouldn’t be ranked as one of the best 60 players in America, one of the 15 best offensive tackles in the nation (though he will most likely be an offensive guard at the next level) and a top-10 player in Texas High School football’s junior class.
There are certainly other coaches who played a tremendous helping hand along the way – Donnie Smith, Steve Leisz, Duke Manyweather to name a few – but Younger, a former left tackle at Arkansas, is a good family friend who took an eighth-grade Donovan under his wing to show him tricks, tools and how to be an explosive, but contained, lineman in high school and at the Division I level.
Because for as nice as having that aggression and mean streak is, it's useless if not harnessed properly. Donovan was a head-forward, balls-to-the-wall type of player before Younger came along, and the O-line mentor taught him how to be patient, disciplined and look for things others at his position didn't see.
Donovan credits Younger for showing him the majority of what he does on the field today, saying, “without him, I don’t think I would be where I am today."
Todd added: “He pulled Donovan aside. He saw something special in him, and he always tried to teach him just a little bit more. It wasn’t just the strength. It was, ‘your hand has to go here.’ It’s not just blocking. It’s ‘here’s how you finish someone properly.’ He was always teaching him a little more nastiness, a little more aggression, a little more technique, and he just absorbs it along the way.”
So the tenacity mostly came naturally (with a little push). The other critical factors of being an offensive lineman were bred into him, and that’s what pushed him from being good to great. Visualizing what gap each defender will fill or what zone he’s going to cover before it happens, watching a linebacker’s eyes dart around the field, seeing the foot placement of a defensive end switch at the last second before the snap – they all add up as reasons that four of the five-best offensive lines in America offered him a scholarship.
“When I get into a stance, I just read everything. Everything slows down,” Donovan said. “When the ball is hut – when the play goes – I just see it slow down so much. If I’m double-teaming somebody, I look up and see the linebacker flowing, or I see his eyes shift, I know he’s coming this way. Or if he’s blitzing, I see him looking at me instead of the receiver. Or I see his feet facing me. Or I see him on his toes. The little keys like that, I see it before it happens. That’s why we either audible or do something like that.
“I can’t really explain it, but when I play, it’s like everything slows down. I just take it in because, as an offensive lineman, you obviously have to be smart. You have to work as a unit. So seeing formations, it’s just fun for me. And then just watching the running back run for long yards, it’s just something that’s an O-lineman’s dream. Or seeing your quarterback not get touched and having a clean jersey, that’s something I take pride in. Making sure that happens, I take pride in that.”
Todd listens with own pride as Donovan speaks, the two standing in the end zone of San Antonio’s Jerry Comalander Stadium, on the same turf where Donovan just watched future teammates play in the same white jerseys he will in 2021, when he suits up for the West All-Stars during the 21st edition of the All-American Bowl (of Texas’ 14 participants in the 2020 bowl, 12 played for the West team).
Four days later, Donovan is named to another All-American team – a first team selection on MaxPreps’ junior squad. Four years from now, he may fulfill the potential being showered upon him by a handful of recruiting analysts who believe he has a “College Football All-American” designation in his future.
Five days after the two Jackson's stand on that field, they find themselves sitting in front of a table cloaked in blue cloth on the basketball court of Episcopal High School’s Hildebrand Athletic Center.
It’s 4 o’clock on a Jan. 8 afternoon as Donovan is flanked by his sister, Rachel, and his parents, Melanie and Todd, a pair who met at Miami (Ohio).
He is draped in what must be a size XXL jacket embroidered with the words “Rivals Five-Star Challenge” stitched into the fabric, tan khaki pants and black-and-white Adidas low tops bouncing on the EHS gym floor.
The last bell has rung at the Bellaire, Texas private school that rests in the southwest region of the Houston metro area, and Jackson is ready to announce his college decision.
Jackson, who had already made his decision privately in late November shortly before his 17th birthday, has five visors lying on the table – Stanford, Georgia, locals Texas and Texas A&M, each less than a 2.5-hour drive from here, and a white Ohio State visor with the “Block O” placed neatly, and purposely, in the middle of the table.
After saying a few words to thank God and those who have been with him along this journey – among them his parents, family, past and present coaches – Jackson takes a deep breath, perhaps blowing out the last few butterflies floating around in his belly, and makes the announcement that he will be attending “THE Ohio State University.”
“I think he personifies, in my mind, Texas football. ... He's a self-starter. He's driven.” – Todd Jackson on his son, OL Recruit Donovan Jackson
He pretended to be in doubt, floating his hand briefly over the five hats, but it felt like Ohio State was the choice for quite some time. Jackson – who was born in Texas but has plenty of family and roots in Ohio and throughout the Midwest – has relationships with the Buckeye coaches and players that are some of the best he has had with anyone over the past year or so, and the school provides exactly what he wants as an academic fit.
But there’s still relief that it’s finally official and that he can leave this recruiting process in the dust to focus on workouts, getting straight-As, preparing the Knights to win a second straight state championship next fall and just being a high school kid again.
So his words are met with an ear-splitting roar from the throng of supporters stuffed into one side of the gym. A smile made for Crest 3D Whitestrip ads remains clinging to his face from the moment he picks up the visor to the moment when he zips off the jacket to reveal a scarlet Ohio State polo.
He hugs Rachel and Melanie, and he clasps hands with Todd, a gratified dad who believes with full confidence that Donovan will “very strongly” represent both the state and the Jackson name.
“I think he personifies, in my mind, Texas football,” Todd said. “It’s a religion down here so they’re always working in the offseason. Always training, always growing, always pushing yourself to do better in the weight room with trainers.
“He’s a self-starter. He’s driven. We have his back. We’ll walk through the wall with him, but he’s the first one through it. I’m proud of what he’s done. Proud to see the man he’s become and look forward to the next steps.”
That next step comes now, as Donovan will have the opportunity to prove to Ohio State fans why their excitement level on Jan. 8, 2020 should be similar on Jan. 8, 2022 or 2023 or 2024 – years when he hopes to be helping lead the Buckeye offense into a national championship game appearance.
“I just wanna show people who Donovan Jackson really is,” Donovan says. “I have faith in myself. My family has faith in me. The people behind me have faith in me. I just wanna not let them down and show them who I’m supposed to be.”
And who are you supposed to be?
“A dog,” he says.
“And what do Jacksons do?” Todd asks his son, who replies with one perfectly succinct word.