When Xzavie Jackson first arrived at Missouri’s 2003 preseason practices, he was a nuisance.
“Almost all freshmen have a big head. I’m not going to lie,” Jackson said. “I had kind of a big head when I came in here, and if you’re already in the program, you’re going to think, ‘This freshman isn’t going to do what he says.’”
Brash, arrogant and loud, Jackson proudly boasted his abilities and intentions to play at defensive end, though a true freshman. This cocky personality didn’t initially sit too well with his teammates, especially the quieter Brian Smith.
Smith, then a redshirt freshman, came into the preseason as the likely replacement for starter Antwan Bynum at defensive end. To secure that job, though, Jackson made it clear Smith would have to go through him.
This created a shaky relationship, but that conflict soon disappeared as they spent time together as roommates.
“We’re real cool because we have each other on and off the field,” Smith said. “It’s kind of like a little brother, big brother thing.”
Smith, who is a year older, offered Jackson knowledge of the college game.
Although Smith wouldn’t take credit for Jackson’s maturity, he said he noticed Jackson adjust to college football, specifically understanding the need to pay dues before walking around with an inflated attitude.
“He’s matured now,” Smith said. “He knows his role on the team.”
As their relationship developed and improved, dividends appeared on the field. It provided the Tigers with two solid players at defensive end who complemented each other.
Smith, who is a slender 6 feet 3, 225 pounds, possesses terrific speed and quickness, which has made him a threat any time an opponent needs to pass. Because of his speed, he earned the nickname “Slippery” from his teammates. The Sporting News named him the Big 12 Conference’s best pass-rush specialist before this season.
Jackson, a 6-foot-4, 260-pound native of Wichita, Kan., was one of two true freshmen who played in 2003 and presented a formidable presence against the run, which earned respect from his teammates.
“After everybody saw I could do what I say, they started respecting me a little bit more,” Jackson said. “After all that came around, they were like, ‘Oh, OK,’ or ‘Yeah, he’s going to be playing,’ and stuff like this.
“They really started respecting what I had to say, so they actually started listening and stuff like that. I could start teaching them, and they could teach me since they’ve been here longer than I am.”
Jackson, though, won’t detract from Smith’s abilities, either.
“We bring two different dimensions to the game,” Jackson said. “He’s more of a pass rusher than I am because I’m a lot bigger than he is, but I’m just working hard right now. Me and him are working hard right now just to hold down one side of this defensive line.
“We bring two dynamic prospects to the table right there.”
Because of their different styles of play, they said they don’t view sharing time as a problem and often help each other.
“I like playing behind him. I like him playing behind me, stuff like that,” Jackson said. “He challenges me in practice. I challenge him. He helps me with my pass rushing moves. I help him out with rushing stuff.”
They did more than hold down the line in their first season on the field. They made an impact.
Smith led the NCAA with eight sacks as a freshman and forced four fumbles, earning All-Big 12 honorable mention.
Jackson missed the first four games of the season because of a stress fracture in his forearm suffered in a preseason scrimmage. He saw playing time against Middle Tennesee then started against Nebraska to help against it’s power running attack. He finished the year with 34 tackles and four tackles for loss.
The Tigers recognized both as Team Freshman of the Year, an award Jackson said Smith deserved more than him because Smith demands more from himself.
“If it was my choice, I probably wouldn’t have given it to myself,” Jackson said. “For my expectations for myself, I didn’t do anything last year. He did a lot more than me. Freshman All-American, led the nation in sacks for freshmen, I would have gave him the MVP award because I didn’t do anything. Thirty-four tackles is nothing.”
Since spring practice, though, Jackson has proven his desire to improve his statistics. Not only has Jackson added 25 pounds since the beginning of the 2003 season, the team named him the most improved defensive lineman after the 2004 spring practices.
This season, Jackson has had the bigger impact thus far. He has recorded 11 tackles, including two for a loss. In addition, he recovered a fumble against Arkansas State and nearly had his first career interception at Troy in a game in which he was one of the Tigers’ best defenders.
Coach Gary Pinkel said Jackson possess a tremendous upside, though he is primarily a run stopper at this point in his career.
“Xzavie Jackson has a chance to be a very significant, impact player,” Pinkel said. “This guy has got a remarkable future, and he’s got it all. He’s got everything. He’s strong, he’s athletic, he’s explosive, he’s a great competitor, he’s a great kid. He’s the whole package, and he loves to play.
“You can see his attitude with which he handles himself on the field. I’m glad he’s a sophomore. I’m glad he’s playing for Missouri Tigers.”
After a shaky start to their relationship, Smith is glad Jackson is a Tiger as well.