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Defensive Coordinator Eric Jackson Sets A PSU Standard With His Players
As defensive coordinator at Cal Poly during the 1990s, new Viking Defensive Coordinator Eric Jackson recruited head coach Nigel Burton twice, once out of high school and once when Burton’s chosen college, the University of the Pacific, dropped football. Burton turned him down both times.
But, when Burton recruited Jackson, in his 10th year as defensive coordinator at Princeton, to be defensive coordinator at Portland State, he jumped at the chance.
Jackson had seen success at Princeton where his team recruited nationally, saw a number of Bowl Division level players and won the 2006 Ivy League Championship.
Still, he thought “PSU would be a good opportunity for me. And when the chance came to work with Nigel, it was hard to turn down because it was a chance to work with someone I respected, who understands how to be competitive, and to install a defense that I like,” he said.
Also the pair had a special relationship going back to Jackson’s recruiting efforts.
“There was a great trust factor because we’ve known each other for so long. We have a different relationship. He knows me and how to calm me down,” said Burton.
The PSU position was attractive because it offered a chance to be with his teenage kids (Davis and Brooks) who live in the Portland area. He spends most of his free time attending their soccer (Davis) and volleyball (Brooks) matches because “I missed so many of their games after they moved out here.”
Also, the chance to work with (rather than against) fellow Ivy League Coach Bruce Barnum, PSU’s new offensive coordinator, was enticing because the two share a long history.
Barnum replaced Jackson as a graduate assistant at Cornell and the two were friendly competitors during Barnum’s time as Cornell offensive coordinator. They’d chat before games and were always on friendly terms.
“I did get him three times, but it always came down to the last play of the game,” said Jackson generously.
Burton’s approach is all about integrity, and Jackson likes that.
“Integrity is our standard. It’s what we have to live up to. That means if you say you’ll do something, you do it. No excuses. Whether it’s working out or academics, you have to be accountable,” said the 46-year-old whose college coaching stops also have included Ithaca College, Cornel, Idaho, Alma College and Cincinnati.
PSU’s coaching staff wants its players to see that there’s another standard, he said. “You want them to get used to playing to a new standard. You want them to understand they’re playing to Portland State’s standards, not theirs, and that the PSU standard is a standard of excellence. You need to show them day in and day out that’s what you’re about.”
Midway through spring drills, Jackson said the atmosphere is faster and more up-tempo, “our players are learning that you’ve got to be able to do your job at this tempo and do your best…do your BEST (his emphasis) every time. No peaks and valleys.”
At least on his side of the ball, Jackson felt the Vikings were about half way there. He saw players buying into how he wanted them to play and at what speed. The next step is for the moves and decisions to become instinctive.
“We want everyone to understand that this is why we call this play and why we use these personnel at this down and distance. At this point, we’re installing our defense generically. The next step is that they’ve got to know it inside and out,” he said.
And so far, he’s pleased with what he’s seen. The talent level is what he expected.
“I see good linemen who are learning to play faster. It’s good to see them improve every day. It’s good to see linebackers who can run and to have a secondary that is big and fast. I really like to watch them play,” said Jackson.
With the talent he sees, he expects to be competitive.
“That’s our standard. We expect to field a team that is going to be capable of winning every game,” he said.
And he’s pleased with PSU as an academic opportunity for his players. With only 5,300 students, Princeton athletes had access to everything they needed academically. So far, he sees the same access here, even with PSU’s 28,000 enrollment.
It’s the combination of academics and athletics that attract Jackson to coaching.
“First of all, I coach because it’s competitive and my competitive streak comes out. But the big thing is the positive impact you can have on a guy’s life. You give them an opportunity on scholarship to get a good college education, get a job,” he said and illustrated his point with one of his former Princeton players.
“Tim Strickland was a defensive back at Princeton who had the worst freshman year I’d ever seen. He ended up being the best safety in the league. He graduated and is in real estate in San Francisco. But early on in his career, he felt the pressure of my size 12’s.”
In college, Jackson said, “kids have the opportunity to get better, to develop great relationships. It goes back to what we were saying earlier. We expect to field a team that has a chance to win every game we play.”
Said Burton: “Eric is doing here what he’s always done. He’s a great communicator, a great teacher and he’s good at organizing staff.”
And another reason Burton may have sought out Jackson may be related to his turning him down twice. “At least, I recognized the talent,” said Jackson. And that will be a key part of his responsibility going forward.
By Portland State University Media Relations