When you’re somebody of Antwuan Jackson’s ilk in high school, the question you’re asking yourself is whether you’ll leave college for the NFL after three years or play the full four years. Very rarely does an 18-year-old senior who’s the star of his school even stop to consider the possibility that he’ll end up doing five full years – an entire half-decade – of college football. And nooooobody plans for six years.
Jackson surely didn’t. But he’s here now.
In a decision he couldn’t have ever predicted he’d make, the veteran defensive tackle opted earlier this year to utilize the additional year of eligibility offered by the NCAA to all fall athletes as part of a blanket waiver. In a letter announcing his decision, he wrote, “I still have a lot to prove to my coaches, my teammates, and myself.”
“I'm very grateful,” Jackson said in April, speaking to the media for the first time about his choice to stay in school. “Everybody don't have a chance like this, like in past years. Just getting an extra year just to improve and just to be here, and of course to be a Buckeye, it's a big honor just to have this chance, really.”
Jackson sees this – a “really big blessing for me,” as he calls it – as just the latest step in his process. An extended process, at that.
And he might actually end up starting this fall. Finally.
“I had to put some thought into it after the national championship game,” Jackson said when asked about staying for a sixth year. “I mean, I know I can do more and just come back and just keep improving, like I am right now. Just come back and keep improving for myself and be here for my teammates. And, of course, win a national championship this time.”
To get here, to arrive at the point where he’s the Buckeyes’ most likely next man up at nose tackle, Jackson took the long route. As the 50th-ranked overall recruit in his class, he chose Auburn over the Buckeyes out of his Georgia high school. As he later said, people he was close with helped guide him to Gus Malzahn’s Tigers. Jackson never got comfortable, though. While still on the roster, transferring was on his mind.
“I was just thinking to myself like I need to be somewhere to try to be better as a person, be better as a player,” Jackson said a few years ago.
Ohio State was the answer. Larry Johnson was the answer.
Auburn, however, didn’t agree. The Tigers blocked Jackson’s ability to transfer to Ohio State – or Clemson or any other SEC school. He left anyway, going to Blinn College to spend a year at junior college. There, he became the nation’s top Juco prospect and, as most predicted, ultimately transferred to play for the Buckeyes.
But that wasn’t the beginning of the final chapter of Jackson’s college football story. It was just another in an ever-growing novel.
“I still say it's a process, like coach J tells us,” Jackson said two months ago.
He waltzed into the program with sky-high expectations yet was initially buried on the depth chart and failed to make much headway. In 2018, he didn’t record any statistics in his 24 defensive snaps as a reserve interior defensive lineman. The next year was a step up with him securing 13 tackles – including 3.5 tackles for loss – in 201 snaps. But even that season he was a third-string defensive tackle. Last year, Jackson rose again, turning into the primary backup at nose tackle, capturing 11 tackles and playing a game-high 47 snaps in the national championship.
This year, Jackson will try to make his final ascent as a Buckeye, and it could catapult him into the starting 11.
Tommy Togiai is gone, off to the NFL. His absence opens up a hole that Jackson, along with Jerron Cage, Ty Hamilton and a couple others, will try to plug. He’s not a replica of the outgoing starter but still can work just fine in this defense, his position coach says.
“Really, the nose position is a different position,” Johnson said in April. “You have to be a powerful guy. Very strong. And you have to be quick. And that’s why you loved (Robert Landers), because he was so quick on the inside. In Tommy’s case, he was so powerful inside, you hardly could move him. Antwuan’s a quicker guy inside, so he’ll give us more movement on the inside as we go forward.”
Johnson says Jackson “gets it now,” calling him a “much smarter football player” who “reads and reacts to things really well.” In that regard, he said, he compares favorably to Togiai.
So far, however, Jackson’s on-field play hasn’t matched Togiai. He’s been solid. Done his job. But he hopes to be more than just serviceable in his last – and unexpected – go-round.
“I have a big offseason coming up for myself,” Jackson said in the midst of spring camp. “Just been writing down things for myself to get done once we have this break after spring ball. I'd say it's a big summer for me, really.”