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Kareem Jackson a smaller safety who can hit

Broncos veteran has found new life with switch from cornerback to safety.
Credit: AP
Denver Broncos defensive back Kareem Jackson, left, forces a fumble by Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler at the goal line during the first half of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 6, 2019, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway was watching the early portion of practice last week when Kareem Jackson flashed by.

A 185-pound safety, Jackson was taking his turn performing a secondary drill.

I asked Elway: How can a guy smaller than me can tackle he does?

“He’s the aggressor,’’ Elway said. “He doesn’t wait, he delivers the first blow. A lot of guys his size will wait for the ball carrier and then try to wrap their arms around them and drag them down. Kareem aggressive. He gets them first.’’

Upon returning from a one-week absence with a hamstring injury last week, Jackson was dominant from his safety position in the Broncos’ first win of the season by a 20-13 score against the Los Angeles Chargers. Playing all 70 defensive snaps, Jackson had a team-high 10 tackles with one a forced fumble off a goal-line stop on the final play of the first half. That play saved a touchdown and probably the game for the Broncos who went into the halftime locker room with a 17-0 lead.

During a sit-down interview with 9News this week, I relayed that exchange I had with Elway to Jackson.

“I would agree,’’ Jackson said. “With him saying that, I feel like the guys are too good in this league to sit back and wait on them. Obviously, a lot of them are going to be bigger than me so I have to be the aggressor. It’s almost like, ‘I have to get you before you get me.’

“That’s pretty much how I approach my tackling and I always think about growing up as a kid, my dad used to always tell me you have to smell ‘em before you tackle them.’’

Wait a minute. Did he say, ‘Smell em?’

“If you get close enough to where you can smell ‘em, you can put a good lick on them or you’re going to get them down,’’ Jackson said. “I try to put my body on their body and try to be the aggressor.’’

Jackson grew up in Macon, Ga. His dad supervised all the athletic facilities in the Bibb County school district. For a teenage athlete, nothing beats having the keys to the best gym in town whenever Jackson felt the urge to shoot some hoop. Mom was a teacher for 30 years.

“All of my family is still there,’’ Jackson said. “My sister is a leukemia survivor. And my mom is a two-time breast cancer survivor. Cancer played a huge part in our household. Seeing them fight and going through what they went through definitely made us stronger as a family and made me stronger as an individual.’’

He attended Westside High School where the curriculum is a little tougher than most. The school promotes “independent thinkers.’’ He didn’t go there to play football, where he excelled as a running back. He went there first to hit the books.

“As a kid I always wanted to be an engineer,’’ he said. “And then I found out how much math went into that. I quickly strayed away from that because I’m definitely not a math guy. But as a kid growing up that’s  pretty much what I wanted to do. It was either that or … my mom showed me papers when I was drafted saying that I went to play big-time Division I football and go on to play in the NFL. I was like maybe 5 or 6. It’s always been a dream of mine.”

Education was a priority in the Jackson household and Jackson said that helps him on the football field, whether it was playing on Saturdays for Alabama or Sundays for the Broncos.

“I think it did,’’ Jackson said. “My parents definitely instilled that will to do what I needed to stay on path and create some goals for myself and to attack them and want to achieve them.’’

After high school, he attended a prep school in Virginia for a semester and then got the all-out recruiting rush from just-hired Alabama coach Nick Saban and his new defensive backs coach Kirby Smart.

Saban and Smart picked him up at a small airport in Tuscaloosa on Monday “and I was in class the next day,’’ Jackson said.

From afar, Saban doesn’t seem like he’s much fun. He’s started to show more of a human side through the occasional pregame TV story or commercial. Still, the Crimson Tide’s pursuit of the national championship every year seems more like a requirement than an enjoyable pursuit.

Jackson understands the perception but says there is more to Alabama’s boss.

“I remember meeting him and talking to him and then fast forward to that first practice and I’m thinking, what did I get myself into?’’ said Jackson, who helped Saban win his first national title at Alabama in 2009. “But I had a great time there. He was a great coach and for me, put myself in a situation where I could possibly go to the next level.

“Playing for him -- he had just come from the Miami Dolphins -- so playing for him and the style of defense he was going to teach us, I was going to learn an NFL style defense and it would prepare me for the next level. He taught me a lot from technique all the way down to paying attention to the little details because he’s very detailed in his approach. Everybody can see that just watching the game.’’

He was the Houston Texans’ first-round draft pick in 2010 – two spots ahead of where the Broncos took receiver Demaryius Thomas with the No. 22 pick and five spots prior to Denver taking quarterback Tim Tebow at No. 25 – and played seven seasons of cornerback. His final two seasons there with the Texans, Jackson played safety, outside cornerback and slot corner, setting him up for free agency and a three-year, $33 million contract with the Broncos.

As a safety. He may be 31, but the safety position has reinvigorated his career.

“Thinking about, safety and corner are two different worlds,’’ Jackson said. “Corner is non-stop running. Even if it’s a run play you’ve got a guy running you off 20, 30 yards. That’s pretty much every play.

“But to get a chance to play safety .. you see some things before they happen on both sides of the field and you can put guys in a situation where they can make plays. I do feel like it can tack on a couple extra years on the back end of my career so I’m definitely happy about that.”

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