Daniel Jackson’s first catch for the Gophers wasn’t anything too special.
Quarterback Tanner Morgan threw a 15-yard dart to the true freshman in the first quarter of the eventual loss at Maryland, the second play on the team’s first scoring drive.
That’s still Jackson’s only appearance on the stat sheet heading into Minnesota’s third game, at Illinois on Saturday. But he could become the next household name to Gophers fans, following a line of great receivers. Coach P.J. Fleck and receivers coach Matt Simon have developed NFL talent in Tyler Johnson, now with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Rashod Bateman, a potential first-round pick in 2021.
“There’s going to be a lot of guys that step up for us, just all over the field,” Morgan said. “Daniel Jackson had his first catch last week. That was awesome to see for Daniel. … Guys that just want to help the team win in any way possible, whatever their role may be, and I’m really excited to see that.”
While the defense has plenty of youth and has struggled to find its identity, Jackson has the opposite problem. The offense returned all but two starters. But Jackson, a Shawnee Mission, Kan., native never let a crowded room deter him, said his high school coach, Jon Holmes.
When Bateman temporarily opted out and No. 3 receiver Demetrius Douglas decided to no longer play football before the season, Jackson rose to the challenge.
“Daniel knew that that was his opportunity. And I think he made a big impact,” the Bishop Miege coach said. “... He’s been a kid that never shied away from competition. He always wants to be the best. And if there’s somebody better than him, he’s going to find a way to close that gap.”
Jackson started at Maryland. And while he will likely continue to play backup to Bateman and Chris Autman-Bell, as soon as next season could be a breakout year. That’s how it was in high school, at least.
He dressed every game as a freshman at Bishop Miege, waiting his turn behind two Division I-bound teammates, and the coaches’ saw his talent, intellect and size — currently he’s 6-feet, 200 pounds. As a sophomore, he was a huge impact player, garnering more than 1,000 receiving yards.
Big offers from programs such as Texas A&M began to roll in, but Jackson tore his anterior cruciate ligament in the first quarter of the first game of his junior season, knocking him out for the year. He still only missed practice for his surgery and physical therapy. Holmes said Jackson was often seen carrying water bottles back in after warmups or catching passes from the quarterbacks in drills once doctors cleared him.
The four-star recruit chose the Gophers the summer before his senior year, appreciating Fleck’s one-on-one communication and Simon’s plan to play him and hone his NFL skills. And like Bateman, Jackson stuck with the Gophers despite more interest from other colleges during his senior season with his knee back to full strength.
Holmes said Jackson is a “tremendous” route-runner who can battle in man-to-man coverage. And despite his knee injury, he possesses explosive movement to spin away from defenders and make an 8-yard grab into a 50-yard score.
But those plays might be more likely next year, while he gains invaluable experience now. Autman-Bell said he’s observed how hard Jackson practices, how attentively he listens and how seriously he studies the playbook.
“It’s all about timing, man. You never know when your number is going to get called to make plays,” Autman-Bell said. “I see it in Daniel. I see it in a lot of young guys. … We’ve got a lot of playmakers on our team. It’s just good to see when I leave, whenever that time comes, the program is going to be in good hands with good wide receivers.”