By Jeremy Brown (WKU Athletic Communications)
Imagine someone dropped a 265- pound punching bag on you. Now imagine that the punching bag is dressed in full football padding, a helmet, runs like a deer and its only mission is to bury you into the ground.
Welcome to the world of college running backs trying to get through WKU’s Andrew Jackson.
The 6-foot-1, 265-pound middle linebacker burst onto the scene during his 2011 sophomore campaign, quickly becoming one of the most feared defenders in the Sun Belt. On opposing team’s sidelines a common in-game question was “Who’s that No.4 guy?”
Outside of the WKU coaching staff, few knew about the talent the Hilltoppers had at the backup linebacker position in 2010. During Jackson’s freshman year he played in just one game due to the senior-laden linebacking core of Thomas Majors, Chris Bullard and Orlando Misaalefua. But as spring practices began in 2011, Randy Lee, the Voice of the Hilltoppers, saw a future star roaming in the middle of WKU’s defense.
“I didn’t even know who he was,” said Lee. “The thing that stood out to me was the ferocious intensity he displayed when he played in practice. After watching him I told everyone he was going to be the star of our defense in 2011.”
Lee’s prognostication could not have been more accurate.
The Hilltoppers opened 2011 at L.P. Field in Nashville, Tenn. against in-state rival Kentucky, Jackson’s first career start. After recording 12 tackles, two for loss, versus the Wildcats it was evident a star had been born. Jackson followed up his debut with quite the encore at home versus Navy, finding the ball carrier 10 more times while forcing a fumble.
“He’s physical,” said defensive coordinator Lance Guidry. “He’s a tough kid, he loves to play the game and he always plays it at 100 percent.”
Jackson finished 2011 with a team-high 109 tackles, 17 of them coming behind the line of scrimmage. He was key in WKU’s defensive turnaround, in which the Hilltoppers surrendered 500 fewer rushing yards and 16 less touchdowns than the 2010 squad. Jackson and Co. allowed the fewest yards rushing in the Sun Belt Conference.
He earned first team all-Sun Belt Conference honors for his efforts and finds himself on the preseason all-Sun Belt Conference team as well. Jackson’s breakout season has led to national exposure in 2012, as he’s landed on the Dick Butkus, Bronko Nagurski and Rotary Lombardi Award watch lists.
But Jackson doesn’t get caught up in the notoriety. All he cares about is hitting people.
“He plays very angry, like an angry person,” said Guidry. “That’s always good with a mike linebacker. You want them to be physical and you want them to play angry and with a passion. I love the way he plays.”
Anybody that’s watched the Hilltopper defense with Jackson at the helm knows No.4 plays with an unparalleled tenacity. He flies into piles with reckless abandon and has no fear when launching himself at speedy running backs.
“His intensity is incomparable,” said Lee. “To have a linebacker that size that moves that well and enjoys hitting as much as he enjoys it, he’s just a special player.”
Jackson hasn’t missed a beat in his junior campaign as he continues to force turnovers and bringing opposing offenses down behind the line of scrimmage.
His statistics and accolades jump off the page but what separates him from many middle linebackers is his unique combination of size and speed. To put his 265-pound frame into perspective, Jackson outweighs six WKU defensive linemen and the next biggest Sun Belt Conference linebacker is Louisiana Monroe senior R.J. Young at 240 pounds.
Lee grew up watching the “Steel Curtain” era Pittsburgh Steelers and said Jackson reminded him of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, who anchored the stingy defense to four Super Bowl victories.
“I grew up really liking Jack Lambert and I think Jackson is sort of a Jack Lambert type of linebacker in regards to his desire and enjoyment of hitting people,” said Lee. “That’s what the position is all about. It’s about being an enforcer. He relishes the role of being WKU’s enforcer.”
Jackson is an enforcer on the field but a man of few words off of it. He simply likes to get the job done.
“I like to make plays for the defense,” Jackson said. “It’s my job.”
Jackson feels most at home on the football field, leading his teammates both verbally and by example. One of Lee’s favorite Jackson stories came from a practice earlier this season in which Jackson called out one of his fellow defenders for letting up on a play as the offensive player ran toward the sidelines.
“Andrew was over there in a second letting that defender know this isn’t the way WKU is going to play in a real game,” said Lee. “Later in that practice the player he pointed out drilled one of our receivers.”
Jackson’s intensity and Guidry’s schematics have made WKU one of the most formidable defenses in the Sun Belt Conference. WKU created its defensive identity right off the bat, holding Austin Peay to 154 yards of total offense.
Jackson was at the forefront of the defensive charge again, recording six tackles, two for loss and forcing a fumble. It’s those kind of week in, week out performances that make Jackson the leader of the Hilltoppers physical unit.
“He’s full contact all the time,” said Lee. “He really sets the tone and mindset for our defense.”