ATLANTA — About a week into New England Patriots training camp last summer, 10-year pro Jason McCourty had a question for rookie cornerback J.C. Jackson.
“How did you not get drafted?”
It was a mystery Jackson had likely given plenty of thought to during the months since the NFL Draft, when all 256 picks went by without any team calling his name.
But shortly after the University of Maryland product signed with New England as an undrafted free agent, McCourty and the Patriots realized he could make an impact on defense. Not even Jackson anticipated having the role he’s taken on late in the season; he enters Super Bowl LIII against the Los Angeles Rams with six starts in New England’s past seven games.
“Everything’s kind of eye-opening for him,” McCourty said at a news conference Tuesday. “Everything’s a new learning experience.”
With Jackson and McCourty watching from the bench while the Patriots’ offense marched down the field in overtime of the AFC Championship Game, it was Jackson’s turn to ask the veteran a question.
“He’s asking me, ‘If we go down and score right now, what does that mean?’” McCourty recalled. “I was like, ‘If we go down and score, just come with me. We’re going to sprint on the field because the game’s going to be over.’”
Sure enough, quarterback Tom Brady and the Patriots finished off the Kansas City Chiefs with a touchdown and set off the celebration for Jackson and the rest of the team.
It’s a height that Jackson seemed unlikely to reach at many points during his career. A four-star recruit from Immokalee, Florida, Jackson played the first game of his true freshman season at Florida but suffered a season-ending injury. He would never take the field again for the Gators, who cut him from the program following an arrest on charges for which he was later fully acquitted.
The 6-foot-1, 198-pound defensive back went across the country to Riverside City College in California for a season that tested his resolve and desire to play football before returning to play Division I football at Maryland.
“Try to get to the NFL — that was my main goal [at Maryland]. Get my degree and try to make football a living,” Jackson said at media day Monday. “I was more honed and more focused. Going to Maryland, it was just different. That was the most focused I’ve ever been.”
In his two years as a Terp, Jackson started 23 of 24 games, tallying four interceptions, 13 pass breakups and 80 tackles. He declared for the draft after the 2017 season and received an invite to the NFL combine, where he had respectable results across the board and maintained his late-round draft stock.
Instead, he went undrafted, which Jackson still struggles to find the words to describe.
“It was just — I had to deal with it,” he said. “It was out of my control. I just dealt with going undrafted, and I took advantage of my opportunity. All I really needed was an opportunity.”
Reviewing his options as a free agent after the draft, Jackson chose to sign with the Patriots due to the quality of their organization, he said.
New England cornerbacks coach Josh Boyer was impressed by Jackson’s skillset but also saw a need for further development.
“He was a physical player, he had good movement skills, he was strong at the top of the route. And there was some things that you’re like, ‘Ok, we need to work on this, but we can work with this,’” Boyer said. “The college game and the pro game is different. … There’s an adjustment period there.”
So despite Boyer describing Jackson as “very competitive” during offseason team activities and training camp, the rookie was inactive for the first two weeks and was a healthy scratch again in Week 6. He’s played every game since, however, earning his first start in Week 13 and starting every game except the divisional round since.
“The kid can play, and he can cover his butt off,” McCourty said. “It’s been fun to see him just work and work.”
One of the keys to Jackson’s emergence, Boyer said, was coachability. Cornerback Duron Harmon, who’s been with the Patriots since 2013, said Jackson frequently asks him questions during meetings and film sessions.
“I saw a hungry young player who had phenomenal man-to-man skills who was eager to learn,” Harmon said Monday. “Always wanting to talk football. It’s the reason we have asked him to go out there and play the significant plays that he’s played, and he’s played them at a high level.”
Jackson has three interceptions and eight pass deflections this season, and he’s been featured in the both Patriots’ nickel and base packages at various times late in the year. Despite being undrafted and not becoming a key part of the defense until the end of the season, however, Jackson and his teammates feel he’s still a similar player to the one that came into training camp and quickly caught McCourty’s attention.
It didn’t take long to realize Jackson belonged on the field, and since he first made it there, it’s been hard to take him off.
“Once he got his opportunity to play and go out there, he showed he can play at a high level,” Harmon said. “Ever since then, he hasn’t looked back.”
Indeed, as Jackson milled around the Super Bowl media night festivities, he wasn’t overly eager to reflect on the moments of his life when it seemed he wouldn’t be here. But he knows what reaching the Super Bowl represents, no matter the path he took there.
“It wasn’t easy, but I’m here now,” he said. “I’m going to let this speak for itself. Being here is going to speak for itself. You’re at the Super Bowl, that means you’re doing something.”
James Crabtree-Hannigan is a senior in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, covering the Super Bowl for the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism.