2014 NFL Draft: Pre-Season Breakdown – Andrew Jackson, ILB Western Kentucky

Nov 26, 2011; Bowling Green, KY, USA; Western Kentucky Hilltoppers linebacker Andrew Jackson (4) tackles Troy Trojans wide reciver B.J. Chitty (17) during the first half at L.T. Smith Stadium. The Hilltoppers beat the Trojans 41-18. Mandatory Credit: Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest name on the Western Kentucky defense will be senior middle linebacker Andrew Jackson.  Not only is he their most talented player, but he is simply big and it is not difficult to find him on the field.  Jackson has been an impact player for the Hilltoppers the past two years with 34.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, 5 forced fumbles (4 as a junior), and 121 solo tackles (80 as a junior).  Jackson’s is a big time player with rare strength and size for the position that has already helped him stand out, but going into the NFL, he needs to improve his ability to read and diagnose plays.  As it stands right now, had he come out as a junior, Jackson might have been a player that was selected on the fringe of the second and third days of the draft, but if he can make the necessary adjustments to his game and improve how well he sees the game in front of him, he could make himself a solid top 100 pick as a 2-down thumper in the middle of an NFL defense.

Vitals & Build

Listed at 6’1” 265lbs, Jackson is extremely strong and well-built with tree trunks for legs.  His weight is high but he is not fat; he is just that big and strong.  Still, it would not be a huge surprise if he is asked to cut about 5-10lbs if possible to try to help him play quicker in short areas.  Jackson does not have overly fluid hips and does not change directions all that well but going forward, he can accelerate quickly and get a good head of steam going into the hole and at times, he will surprise people with just how fast he is.

Tackling

Jackson simply overwhelms opponents with his size and strength.  For the most part, he will use his arms and wrap ball carriers up while letting his shoulders crash into them with solid power.  He has impressive hitting power and can fire his teammates or the Hilltopper fans up with an explosive hit.  The occasional issue he has is will tackle too high.  He ends up wrapping up too high on the ball carrier and simply falling off while getting little if any benefit from the strength in his legs.

Run Support

When it comes to supporting the run, it is all about whether Jackson is right or wrong in his read.  The problem is too often it looks like good fortune rather than really knowing what to read and diagnose.  His head needs to be on more of a swivel and he needs to be able to do a better of reading while moving.  Too often, he will stand still while he processes information.  This was a problem against Southern Miss where the Golden Eagles kept sending their running back out to the flat.  His focus was entirely on the back and not seeing what was going on with the ball.  As a result, the back moving out to the flat and drawing Jackson outside so the quarterback could take advantage and run up the middle.  If he can run out to coverage while keeping his head on a swivel and notice what is going on, he could stop earlier and fight back to make a play on the quarterback.  This is an issue that consistently shows up on film and something he will need to improve during his senior year.  To his credit, he did a much better job of this against Florida International later in the year where he was floating out to cover the flat while watching the quarterback’s eyes, but this is something he needs to keep improving.

When Jackson is right on where he is going, he brings the hammer and can wreck opposing running backs when he meets them in the hole.  He will shoot the gaps at times and show good quickness and acceleration enabling him to get through the line and blow up the play before it really starts.  Jackson has shown eh ability to take on blocks and make tackles while being blocked, which is an admirable trait.  Jackson will flash good use of his hands and fight through trash well at times to get to the play, but he has a tendency to end up on the ground too much and needs to work on his balance.  There are times when he will try to run around blocks rather than try to work through them, which can be frustrating with his size and strength.  His lateral quickness is not all that impressive and his range is limited, but for patrolling the A and B gap, he has the ability to be devastatingly effective, intimidate opponents and has shown the ability to cause fumbles, which is always a valuable trait and one he should continue to refine.

Coverage

This is simply not his strong suit and really forces him to do a number of things that are uncomfortable for him.  In zone, he can get a decent jam at the line but he does not show much short area quickness and can quickly get left behind when wide receivers, tight ends, or running backs go into their breaks.  In situations where Jackson is in coverage, the onus is on the team to get the quarterback as fast as they possibly can or he is going to get beat.  It is simply not an area where he is remotely effective at this point.  Perhaps if he can get quicker by losing weight or just through work, he can improve in this area, but this is going to be a problem area for him his senior year and going into the NFL.

System Fit

The best fit for Jackson is as the strong side inside backer in a 3-4 where he can focus on the A and B gaps.  Whether he is shooting the gaps or hammering guards and fighting to make tackles, the less area he has to cover and the more he can focus on using his strength and power to attack up the field and at the line of scrimmage, the more effective he will be.  As it stands now, he is a two down linebacker and he will have a difficult time proving he can do too much more, but if he can be the hammer in the middle of a 3-4 that basically works like an undersized defensive tackle, who can play the run and occasionally get to the quarterback, Jackson will be an extremely valuable asset.

If Jackson does end up in a 4-3 scheme, he would be fine as long as he is able to patrol the A and B gaps with the outside linebackers covering the rest.  He could be a hammer in the box but if he is forced to try to play sideline to sideline, it is going to be a bad fit and force him into situations that do not serve him well.  In a role like the one Mike Singletary played for the Chicago Bears, patrolling guard to guard, it could work out well.

Pass Rush & Blitz ability

Jackson has shown he can be an asset on the blitz, showing the ability to time up his blitz and shoot gaps.  And he is a terrifying sight for opposing quarterbacks as he comes right up the middle and brings all of that strength and power with him.  For the most part, he works because he is able to get there before the quarterback is really able to set up and throw the football, but because of Jackson’s strength and ability to use his hands, he can beat a guard or center on the way to the quarterback.  The small issue is with his lateral agility can result in the quarterback side stepping him and having him miss the play.

Schedule

Sat, Aug. 31 at Kentucky
Sat, Sept. 7 at Tennessee
Sat, Sept. 14 at South Alabama
Sat, Sept. 21 vs. Morgan State
Sat, Sept. 28 vs. Navy
Thu, Oct. 3 at LA-Monroe
Tue, Oct. 15 vs. LA-Lafayette
Sat, Oct. 26 vs. Troy
Sat, Nov. 2 at Georgia State
Sat, Nov. 9 at Army
Sat, Nov. 23 at Texas State
Sat, Nov. 30 vs. Arkansas State

Notable Games

The first decent test for Jackson will be week two in Knoxville against Tennessee.  The Volunteers have a talented center in James Stone as well as a talented back in Rajion Neal.  Two other games that could be worth keeping an eye on with Jackson are Army and Navy.  It is not about the talent the service academies bring to the table but rather defending and more importantly for Jackson, reading and diagnosing where he needs to attack the triple option.  Making quick reads and diagnosing what he is going on so he can make the right play because that is one of the areas he needs to improve and while the Triple Option is not coming to the NFL anytime soon, the Run Option is and being able to read and diagnose effectively is critical to succeed at the next level.  Lastly, the game against Arkansas State as their regular season finale is another game that could be good to watch for Jackson as he is tasked with stopping the Red Wolves’ running back David Oku in a game that could be critical in deciding who wins the Sun Belt Conference this year.

NFL Comparison

Jackson’s game is similar to that of Jasper Brinkley when he came out of South Carolina.  Brinkley was overweight his last year with some nagging issues due to injury, but like Jackson, projected to play inside linebacker as a hammer against the run.  He was drafted in the fourth round by the Minnesota Vikings.  Now, an Arizona Cardinal, it seems like Brinkley is in a better fit for what he does well, being a thumping inside linebacker in their 3-4 scheme that reduces the area he has to cover.

If Jackson can develop his game, he has a chance to end up like former Steeler All-Pro Levon Kirkland, who played at 6’1” 275lbs at his lightest, ran surprising well given his size and was an impressive player at the height of Blitzburgh after being selected in the second round of the 1992 draft out of Clemson.  At height of his powers, he was a monster in the middle of that defense.

Draft Projection

Jackson has a ton of talent and potential to be a tremendous fit in a number of NFL schemes and be am impact run defender who can get to the quarterback on occasion with the ability to cause fumbles.  The NFL likes these guys but it takes a great player to go in the second round as a 2-down player and Jackson needs to improve his ability to read and diagnose plays, particularly while moving.  He is a player who will probably end up at either the Senior Bowl or East-West Shrine Game and those could be a huge opportunity to show his strength and ability against top level competition but it will really come down o the tape and seeing him demonstrate the instincts necessary to be a good NFL linebacker.  If he can convince teams he can do that, he will figure in the second day of the draft and he will be a much better football player for it; if not, he could end up going early on day three.

Topics: 2014 Mock Draft, 2014 NFL Draft, Andrew Jackson, Inside Linebackers, Jasper Brinkley, Levon Kirkland, Middle Linebackers, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers Football

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