Antwuan Jackson Jr. never stopped thinking about playing football at Ohio State, even after he enrolled at Auburn in 2016.
Two years later, Jackson doesn’t have to merely think about being a Buckeye anymore.
Despite being heavily recruited by Ohio State out of Cedar Grove High School three years ago, Jackson decided to enroll at Auburn – less than a two-hour drive away from his hometown of Ellenwood, Georgia – in part, he said, because people around him wanted him to go there. But even after Jackson became a part of the Tigers football, the four-star defensive tackle couldn’t get his mind off the Buckeyes – specifically, the relationship he had with Ohio State defensive line coach Larry Johnson.
"When I committed to Auburn, I just heard rumors that after I committed there, he just walked around the facility, wasn't talking to nobody, moping around and stuff. So when I was at Auburn, I just felt like I needed to be here," Jackson said while meeting with the media at Ohio State on National Signing Day earlier this month.
While Jackson already knew he wanted to be a Buckeye when he made the decision to transfer from Auburn after redshirting his first season there, Auburn blocked him from transferring to Ohio State – among other schools – forcing Jackson to go to a junior college in order to reopen his transfer options. After spending a semester at Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, however, Jackson has finally arrived in Columbus, where he will now look to make up for lost time and compete for immediate playing time in 2018.
"I just want to build trust from my teammates and my coaches," Jackson said. "Just play the best I can for my teammates, and try to win a championship."
In hindsight, Jackson certainly would have chosen Ohio State over Auburn in the first place if he could do it all over again. Ohio State, of course, could have decided not to re-recruit Jackson after he spurned their offer the first time around. Johnson and Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, however, decided to give Jackson a second chance, and that loyalty did not go unappreciated.
"It was Coach J and Coach Meyer, they just gave me the opportunity," Jackson said. "I cried a little bit, I really cried that they still thought about me. And now I'm here."
Jackson says he doesn’t regret the journey he took to Columbus, though, because he gained value from it, especially in the relationships he had the opportunity to build at Blinn this past fall.
"I built a great relationship with a lot of people there," Jackson said of his time at Blinn. "Everybody loved me there, I loved them back. So just going through the grind with them, not being in the best dorms and the best school or whatever, but I loved it."
Going to Blinn gave Jackson the opportunity to play this past fall, which he would not have had if he had been able to transfer directly to Ohio State, as he would have been forced to sit out the 2017 season due to NCAA transfer rules. And while Jackson certainly could have benefitted nonetheless from being able to practice with the Buckeyes all of last season, he says playing at Blinn enabled him to gain the confidence back that he lost when his experience with the Tigers didn’t go as hoped.
When Jackson describes what his goals are for his career at Ohio State, where he will now have three remaining years of eligibility, it’s clear that he doesn’t lack confidence anymore. Jackson says he not only wants to live up to the standard set by Ohio State’s recent defensive line greats, but raise that standard to an even higher level.
"Be better than all the Joey Bosas and Tyquan Lewis and (Sam) Hubbards," Jackson said of his goals. "Just try to be better than them."
It’s not unprecedented for a player to transfer into Ohio State from a junior college and make an immediate impact in his first year as a Buckeye. Kendall Sheffield was a regular in Ohio State’s cornerback rotation last season after taking a very similar route to Columbus as Jackson one year earlier, spending the fall of 2016 at Blinn after beginning his career at Alabama before transferring to Ohio state.
Sheffield, who is expected to be a starting cornerback for the Buckeyes this season, told Eleven Warriors last week that his advice to Jackson has been to "come in here, work hard and just do the right things."
"He’s working hard," Sheffield said of what he has seen from Jackson so far.
Jackson, however, will face much steeper competition for playing time at his position than Sheffield faced last year.
Ohio State was replacing two first-round cornerbacks (Marshon Lattimore and Gareon Conley) and had only two returning cornerbacks with playing experience (Denzel Ward and Damon Arnette) going into last season. The Buckeyes are loaded with talent at defensive tackle, however, going into this season.
Dre’Mont Jones returns as the star of the defensive tackle group. Robert Landers, a regular in the defensive tackle rotation for the past two years, is likely to start alongside Jones. Jashon Cornell and Davon Hamilton, like Jones and Landers, are fourth-year juniors who have seen playing time over the past two seasons. Haskell Garrett is another candidate to play a bigger role this year after seeing playing time as a true freshman last year. Fellow four-star recruit Tommy Togiai is already on campus as an early enrollee, while five-star recruit Taron Vincent will arrive this summer.
Jackson’s goal is to earn a place on the Buckeyes’ two-deep and eventually emerge as a starter, but he’s also excited to be part of such a deep defensive tackle group. And one of the things he has enjoyed about his experience at Ohio State so far, he says, is that he and his fellow defensive tackles – even though they are all competing with one another for playing time – have pushed each other to get better instead of trying to cut each other down.
"We all love each other, we don't try to not help each other out because we're competing for this position," Jackson said. "With the younger guys coming in, the older guys, they help them out. And that's the No. 1 thing here, really close. We don't talk bad about each other at all.
"I want everybody to play, to be honest," Jackson added. "We've all got the talent and knowledge to play."
Jackson has been unable to participate in most of Ohio State’s offseason conditioning program after undergoing surgery earlier this month for a fractured bone in his foot, an injury he suffered while practicing for his final game at Blinn this past fall. While he said he could miss the first week of spring practices, which begin March 6, depending on how quickly he recovers, he does expect to be back on the field and competing with his new teammates sooner than later.
"I feel like I need to be out here and be ready for spring ball so I can contribute to the team," Jackson said.
Meyer also wants to see Jackson on the field and competing as quickly as possible, he said, because he expects Jackson to make an impact for the Buckeyes in 2018.
"His attitude's been great," Meyer said of Jackson on National Signing Day. "He's here because of Coach Johnson and wanted to be a part of the Buckeyes, and so we need to get him ready. He's got to play next year."