True freshman Joe Jackson and his ‘Gladiator body’ a big part of Miami Hurricanes’ future

Joe Jackson rumbles for a touchdown after recovering a fumble against Georgia Tech. (Getty Images)

Joe Jackson rumbles for a touchdown after recovering a fumble against Georgia Tech. (Getty Images)

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Conflicting reports emerged this week regarding the personality of Joe Jackson.

“He’s a happy guy,” coach Mark Richt said.

“I’m a guy that gets angry a lot,” Jacks0n said.

Whom to believe? It depends on when you encounter him.

Jackson, an affable true freshman from Homestead, has emerged as one of Miami’s meanest and most talented defensive ends. He leads the Hurricanes in sacks (4.5). No true freshman in the country has more.

His teammates and coaches do a poor job of concealing their excitement about his potential.

“Sky’s the limit with him,” said redshirt sophomore Demetrius Jackson, who is not related. “When we’re gone, he’s going to be the featured defensive end at Miami.”

He registered his first two sacks in Miami’s Sept. 10 win over Florida Atlantic, but the highlight of his season thus far was a strip-sack and fumble recovery for a touchdown Oct. 1 at Georgia Tech. He combined for a sack in the Hurricanes’ biggest game of the year, Oct. 8 against Florida State. In his first start, Oct. 20 at Virginia Tech, he had six tackles (two for loss) and one sack.

Richt loves how Jackson, 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, is already playing in critical situations. After seeing Jackson’s speed, agility, strength and smarts on display this year, Richt can see him developing into an elite player.

“He’s still a pretty slim and trim guy,” Richt said. “He’s going to muscle up and be fantastic. The experience he’s gaining right now is huge. And he’s made plays for us. He’s playing in games when everything’s on the line. That won’t be a shock to him in the future.”

Jackson, who played at nearby Gulliver Prep, was supposed to sit out this year. But starter Al-Quadin Muhammad‘s dismissal and reserve Scott Patchan‘s knee injury put him on the field. Junior Chad Thomas’ injury put him in the starting lineup.

“I felt like I could come in and help,” he said, “but I didn’t know if I was going to redshirt or not. I wasn’t sure. My coach told me we’ll see how it goes in camp. I was fortunate to play. I think I’ve been doing a decent job.”

Miami’s former recruiting staff made Jackson a top priority when they saw him covering receivers in high school 7-on-7 tournaments in South Florida, where small, speedy players are everywhere. Jackson kept pace, despite being 6-foot-4 and about 220 pounds at the time. He’s now an inch taller and about 30 pounds heavier, and still has what Thomas calls “the Gladiator body.”

“He’s still a pretty slim and trim guy,” Richt said. “He’s going to muscle up and be fantastic. The experience he’s gaining right now is huge. And he’s made plays for us. He’s playing in games when everything’s on the line. That won’t be a shock to him in the future.”

Manny Diaz praised Jackson, who has nationally respected defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski teaching him the finer points of the trade. Jackson is one of six true freshmen who have seen significant playing time in Miami’s banged-up, inexperienced defense. Diaz is encouraged by Jackson’s progress, but says none of his youngsters have arrived.

“They’re playing good as freshmen,” he said. “They need to play good as college football players. That’ll be the key going forward. The natural instinct is to say, ‘I am good enough.’ And being ‘good enough’ is a curse, because UM isn’t judged on being ‘good enough.’ Luckily, they’ve all had good attitudes, but that’ll be the dynamic going forward. Now we have to be much better. Everybody’s got a lot of room to grow.”

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