Anyone in need of verification that hard work often trumps innate ability should look no further than Florida redshirt junior linebacker Rayshad Jackson.
Jackson, the first defensive prospect to commit to former UF coach Jim McElwain, has seen his development accelerate with Florida’s new coaching staff, culminating in Saturday’s season opener where he provided a necessary contribution at a position sorely lacking depth and production.
After playing largely on special teams the last two seasons, Jackson turned in a career-high five tackles as UF opened the season with a 53-6 win over Charleston Southern.
“It was great. I loved it, and want it to be like that all the time,” Jackson said. “We went out there and did our job. It was a great feeling.”
For those who have watched as Jackson developed, biding his time until his number was called, Saturday’s performance seemed long overdue considering the work ethic the Miami native has frequently displayed in practice.
“That’s been my dude since high school, man, middle school, really,” fellow linebacker Vosean Joseph said of Jackson, who played with Jackson at Miami Norland High. “But to see Ray actually come out there for the first time, it was crazy. I was just proud of my dude.”
Glimpses of Jackson’s potential were evident in 2017 despite the overall cloud that hung over the program.
Against South Carolina, Jackson recorded the first fumble recovery of his collegiate career, a necessary boost at the time for a team sorely in need of momentum.
And just a week later against UAB, Jackson forced his first fumble, which freshman safety Shawn Davis promptly pounced on.
Although detractors could claim he was just in the right place at the right time, those who observe Jackson’s daily work ethic realize his high energy and motor simply increase his chances of making plays.
“They’re always preaching to run to the ball,” defensive tackle Tedarrell Slaton said about Florida’s defensive mentality, “and it came out and they tell us when we run to the ball anything can happen.”
But what will truly keep Jackson on the field isn’t his knack for finding the football — it’s his sound tackling.
“He made some tackles in space that I really liked. He was in the game as far as understanding his responsibilities because any time you play an option team, you know, you’ve got three elements of it,” UF defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Jackson. “His (role) would vary on the basis of the call and he did a good job of playing the game the way it needs to be played. Executed his job and made plays.”
Regardless of what comes next in his UF career, Jackson’s teammates simply seemed ecstatic to see his work ethic translate in-game.
“I’ve just never seen him ball out like that,” Joseph said. “For me to see him actually do that in a live game, I was like, ‘Ray, it’s your time. You’ve got to eat now’.”