COLUMBIA — As Kenji Jackson sees it, you can’t play flat.
Flat is the last word to describe Jackson. When he talks football, his face breaks almost unconsciously into a grin. He seems to bounce back off of the turf after each of his tackles. On the sidelines, his arms pump and his voice bellows as he puts almost as much effort into encouraging his teammates as he does into playing. Flat is the opposite of Jackson.
Jackson, in his third year with the Missouri football team, has noticeably improved for the 2010 season. The junior safety, who has started all of the Tigers’ games this season, is on pace to have a breakout season. He is tied for the team lead with 24 tackles and two interceptions. Last season he finished with 41 tackles in 12 appearances.
He attributes his success to both physical improvements and his long-standing love of football.
“K.J.’s really doing well,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s doing a lot of things back there. He’s got some confidence. He’s a very good athlete and a very tough guy.”
After a strong spring and preseason, Jackson surpassed Jarrell Harrison on the depth chart to become the No. 1 strong safety. As early as August, coaches noticed Jackson’s improved presence on the field.
“He’s a different player now than he was a year ago,” Pinkel said.
Jackson said he has seen solid improvements in the weight room, which have transferred to the field. Not only is he able to bench press and squat more weight than he could last year, he said, he also has improved his time in the 40-yard dash.
He knows that hard work off of the field impacts his performance on it.
“It all transfers over, and I’m able to perform how I need to out there,” Jackson said.
Strength and speed are key to Jackson’s position. A strong safety faces off against opposing tight ends, who are often both fast and strong. It’s his job to bring them down or, even better, to strip them of ball.
“Playing corner or safety, you’ve got to have ice water in your veins a little bit,” Pinkel said. “You know you’re going to get tested.”
Jackson has faced his share of tests. The strong opponents he lines up against and the competition from other safeties like Harrison have forced him to improve his game. He has also been a part of a Missouri defense that has been criticized in recent years. Now, those tests have transformed into lessons and improvements.
“Experience is the best teacher,” Jackson said. “You know, my freshman year until now … you just start to catch on to things, I guess, how other players play and how you should prepare to play.”
With experience also comes comfort, and Jackson said he’s now able to go with the momentum of the game, rather than overthink the plays he has to make. This switch from thought to unbridled action has made Jackson into a legitimate threat.
“I’ve always liked to hit people. I mean, knowing exactly what I’m supposed to do, it just lets me be more relentless, I guess, getting there, and I can be more aggressive and more fanatical about getting the ball out.”
Jackson is pleased with the improvements he has made and is proud to be a starter, but he said that the team matters more to him than his individual performance. In his mind though, the two are linked. Jackson said that he hopes his success is infectious, and, as one of the most experienced safeties on the team, he hopes the younger players will look up to him and notice the hard work it takes to be successful.
“I try to just help them out as much as I can,” Jackson said. “I want them to be able to see me and be like, ‘K.J.’s doing this, maybe I can do this. Someone help me do this.’”
Pinkel said that he thinks Jackson’s best leadership comes through his emotional style of play. When asked to describe his emotion on the field, Jackson didn’t hesitate to give concrete examples of Pinkel’s more abstract description: high fives, loud yells and jumps — just to name a few.
Jackson’s excitement is present both on the field and off, and he said that he has to be careful that it doesn’t come across as overconfidence. After making a big play, Jackson often celebrates, but the performance isn’t for his benefit, though — it’s for his team.
“I figure if I just play with some emotion, my teammates will kind of feed off what I do,” Jackson said. “I feel like if they play with emotion, I can feed off them, too, so I just go out there and try to have fun.”
Jackson feels strongly about his team and his performance, so strongly that it bleeds over into his personality, into his cheers of encouragement and the smile that appears on his face whenever he’s discussing football.
This combination of emotion with Jackson's strength and speed set him apart. But this season Pinkel has seen something new that has helped take Jackson's game to a new level.
“His enthusiasm’s been awesome,” Pinkel said. “He plays at a real high level of emotion, but now I think he contains it as he plays.”