Ravens' Jackson on crash course

Rookie free agent, back after two years, relearns linebacker

August 30, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Hard-core Ravens fans and HBO viewers know what Kenny Jackson did on his big night out during training camp. He gave an unequivocal thumbs-up to Planet of the Apes, even if it wasn't the most memorable film he has seen this month.

Jackson is the unusual rookie free agent whose quest to join the Super Bowl champions was developed into one of the subplots on Hard Knocks, the HBO chronicle of the Ravens' preseason. He's a chiseled 6 feet 2, 253 pounds, and there are plenty of rough edges to his game. Jackson previously played in 1998, for Nevada-Reno, and, after two years away from football, he's taking a crash course in linebacking, watching Peter Boulware and hours of video.

"Kenny has a couple of the measurables, speed and size, that you look for," linebackers coach Jack Del Rio said. "He runs like a deer, and he's a big, strong guy. The thing we're working on is, how much football can we cram into a month? I'm trying to give him three years' worth in a month. He's making progress, but he has a long way to go."

Was there anything Del Rio was able to offer Jackson after passing camp, any playbooks or game film, to quicken that curve?

"Not really," he said. "He doesn't have much experience, and that's not something you can just buy at Wal-Mart off the shelf and apply when you're not here. He just needs time to play. When you're a rookie, time is not on your side. You've got to come along quick."

Fortunately for Jackson, he's a quick study who is attempting his second improbable splash into the sport. Both came after nudges from big brothers.

A call that Jackson got from his brother, Barry, last winter is already part of Ravens lore. Jackson was reached at his job, counseling at-risk youths in South Central Los Angeles. After an exhausting day playing pickup basketball with large, frustrated young men, Jackson was informed that Ravens defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis, who had recruited Barry to New Mexico, was in town on a scouting trip.

"Lord knows I wasn't ready to do a workout," Jackson said.

After some eye-popping 40-yard dash times and agility drills, Jackson signed a free-agent contract with the Ravens in April.

Less well-known is Jackson's introduction to football, courtesy of his brother, Titus, who played at Washington State.

"He's the one who got me into sports," Jackson said. "My mom didn't want me playing football, and I didn't play until the 12th grade. Football always came pretty easy to me. I hope it continues to come easy for me."

Jackson arrived at Arizona as a 200-pound tailback in 1994. The Wildcats moved him to weak-side linebacker, and he went back home, to Riverside City College, where his play at cornerback earned him another scholarship, to Nevada-Reno. He earned two letters with the Wolfpack -- as an outside linebacker -- but there was no invitation to the scouting combine or a free-agent offer after draft day in 1999.

"Leaving Arizona, not getting drafted, that wasn't discouraging," Jackson said. "Things don't always happen the way you plan. God had me go through certain things. I'm happy to be here now. The road I took made me a better player and a better person."

And a bigger one, too. In 1999 and 2000, Jackson became a fixture at Black Diamond, a no-frills fitness center in South Central where "a lot of guys come straight from penitentiary to work out." Jackson may lack seasoning, but his body is NFL-ready.

The Ravens are teaching Jackson the strong-side spot, where he's buried behind Boulware and Cornell Brown, but his real niche would be on special teams. Jackson was one of the rookies coach Brian Billick alluded to when he said the Ravens are looking for "a couple of these young guys to step up on special teams and become the 50th, 51st, 52nd and 53rd players on the roster."

His current battle is against fellow rookie Tim Johnson for the seventh linebacker spot. But there is a chance that neither could be on the roster next week if the Ravens choose to re-sign O.J. Brigance.

Heading into tomorrow's final tuneup against the New York Giants at PSINet Stadium, Jackson has notched one tackle in two preseason games.

"I've run well on kickoffs, tried to cause a lot of chaos," Jackson said. "I think I can do it [make the Ravens]. It's time to go out there and make them believe I deserve one of those spots."

Next for Ravens

Preseason opponent: New York Giants

Site: PSINet Stadium

When: Tomorrow, noon

TV/Radio: Ch. 54, Comcast SportsNet/WJFK (1300 AM), WQSR (105.7 FM)

Line: Ravens by 3

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