MAN ON THE MOVE: Senior Steve Jackson has started at cornerback all season for Temple, but the Troy transfer got his first action on offense in last Friday's District 12-6A opener at Bryan and scored touchdowns of 8 and 37 yards on his only two carries to help the defending champion Wildcats beat the Vikings 53-19. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Jackson figures to get additional rushing opportunities when Temple (3-2, 1-0) hosts new opponent Pflugerville Weiss (2-3, 0-1) at 7:30 Friday night at Wildcat Stadium. (Photo by Greg Wille, TempleBeltonSports.com)
By GREG WILLE
It was almost halftime of Temple’s fifth football game this season, and Steve Jackson hadn’t touched the ball on offense all year.
Of course, there was a good reason for that. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound senior is a starting cornerback on defense and plays on several special teams for the Wildcats.
Temple led host Bryan 14-6 with 2 minutes remaining in the second quarter in last Friday night’s District 12-6A opener at Merrill Green Stadium. Wildcats offensive coordinator Robby Case had been looking for the right time and situation to insert the fast, strong Jackson at running back, a position he played the previous two seasons just up the road at Class 3A Troy.
From the Bryan 8-yard line, Jackson took a handoff from junior quarterback Reese Rumfield, cut to his right, used a quick-shifting move to elude the nearest defender and raced inside the right pylon for the touchdown and a 21-6 advantage on his first varsity carry for the Wildcats.
“Mikal (Harrison-Pilot) came up to me, the line came up to me and I didn’t know how to react. I was excited, but I didn’t go jumping around and all that,” a smiling Jackson recalled on Tuesday afternoon. “They were all happy for me because they knew I wanted to play offense. That feeling made me so excited.”
Midway through the third period, after Temple expanded its lead to 36-6 on touchdowns from sophomore Christian Tutson and senior Harrison-Pilot, Jackson was ready for more action on offense.
From the Vikings 37, he took a handoff on the right hash, ran straight up the middle, carved through well-blocked gaps and smoothly sprinted past a group of step-too-slow defenders as he cut across to the left hash and cruised in to score.
For Jackson, it was two carries and two touchdowns totaling 45 yards in a statement-making 53-19 victory for defending 12-6A champion Temple, which bounced back from its disappointing 53-18 home loss a week earlier to state-ranked Arlington Martin, a game in which Jackson allowed two TD receptions.
“I missed playing offense. They were telling me all week that we hadn’t had a rushing touchdown by a running back this season so far. Coach Case said, ‘I think we’re going to get our first running back touchdown,’ and I told him, ‘Yes sir,’” the upbeat, outgoing Jackson said, adding that he’s played offense since he started tackle football around age 6. “I was excited all week, then when I did get to go in and I got in the end zone I was so excited.
“Then he let me go again and after (the second TD run) he was like, ‘All right, I don’t want you to get hurt, so you can’t go back in.’ I was like, ‘Aw, man.’”
It’s fairly safe to assume that Jackson will get a heavier workload at running back when Temple (3-2) plays it district home opener against first-time opponent Pflugerville Weiss (2-3, 0-1) at 7:30 Friday night at Wildcat Stadium.
“Steve’s 2-for-2 with two touchdowns. That’s a hell of a stat line,” Case said with a grin. “I said, ‘I don’t expect you to get tackled ever again now.’ So I guess we’re going to find out. Now that he’s shown what he can do, he’ll obviously play a little bit more at running back than last week. It won’t be 30 carries. He had two last week and I’m hoping to get him around the 10 mark.”
Although Temple’s offense had shown explosive signs this season with Rumfield throwing passes to speedy targets Harrison-Pilot and Tutson as well as juniors Jaquon Butler and Jeremiah Lennon, the Wildcats had struggled to produce big plays with their rushing game.
Rugged senior Deshaun Brundage (79 carries, 388 yards) is Temple’s leading rusher but isn’t the long-range weapon that the Wildcats had from 2019-21 with speedy, durable back Samari Howard (Army West Point), who last year became the program’s all-time leader in touchdowns and points scored.
Even though Jackson didn’t transfer back to Temple until the middle of last spring and didn’t have a carry in the first four games, seventh-year head coach Scott Stewart knew that Jackson had the natural ability to give the Wildcats’ offense a backfield spark.
“I’ll tell you what I did know even in practice is that Steve’s got really, really good vision. He’s got that vision a little bit like Samari,” Stewart said. “He sees the cut, and the next cut. He’ll feel the hole and he’s already looking at who’s converging, and he does a good job at taking angles away. He’s got phenomenal vision.”
CAN'T CATCH HIM: Temple senior running back Steve Jackson (left) gets into the end zone past Bryan defender Tate Schneringer just before halftime to score an 8-yard touchdown on his first carry of the season, helping the visiting Wildcats defeat the Vikings 53-19 in last Friday's District 12-6A opener at Merrill Green Stadium. Jackson, who rushed for 863 yards and 12 touchdowns for Class 3A Troy in 2021, ran for a 37-yard TD in the third period on his only other carry. (File photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Case explained that Temple’s plan was to give Brundage the majority of the carries throughout non-district play and complement him with juniors Jervonnie Williams and Rymond Johnson. Brundage had a strong performance in the home win against Willis, but otherwise the Wildcats’ ground game was inconsistent and limited.
Watching how Jackson’s two touchdown runs unfolded at Bryan demonstrated why he’s a potentially impactful addition to Temple’s rushing attack.
“That’s the thing. Steve brings a different element to our backfield right now. He’s a different kid with a different type of skillset,” Case said about Jackson, who rushed for 863 yards (7.7 per carry) and 12 touchdowns for Troy last year despite battling a broken hand early in the season and then a lingering ankle injury. “(On the first TD vs. Bryan) he made a couple of unblocked guys miss near the goal line with a little sidestep. The second one was blocked really well, so that helped, but when he hit the hole, you could see his vision naturally go out and he hit another gear, which they weren’t expecting. That’s what Samari used to do and what we’d been missing the first four weeks.
“We knew going into the year that our running backs had a certain skillset and it was going to be more of a grind-it-out, ground-and-pound (approach) and try to stay efficient, and then when we got into district we’d try to be more creative. There was a plan in place there.”
Temple entered this season needing skill and depth and cornerback, so the coaching staff placed Jackson there because he also had excelled on defense at Troy. He made 29 tackles and three interceptions as a sophomore and then 41 stops and two picks as a junior for the Trojans.
However, Case – whom Stewart promoted to offensive coordinator in June – always kept it in his mind that Jackson had the ability to come give the Wildcats’ offense a jolt of big-play potential when the timing was right.
“I just knew Steve was an all-district running back at Troy and he was with us here at slot receiver as a freshman. Troy moved him to running back and he was really good there,” Case said. “We had a need at corner and we had three or four running backs at the time, so he ended up going to corner where he was needed the most.
“I was looking at it and going, ‘Well, now that we’re into district, we’re going to start borrowing some of our defensive guys.’ I call them ‘mercenaries’ that we hire to come over and do a job. Steve’s just a natural. He’s got natural vision. I only have to tell him one thing – ‘Hey, read this guy’ – and he does it. He’s not a high-rep guy at that position, so that helps the whole situation.”
For the record, Jackson remains a starting cornerback – he’s made 25 tackles this season – for defensive coordinator Dexter Knox and his skills at that position will be needed against a potent, balanced Weiss offense that boasts several talented receivers.
But senior New Mexico State commitment Naeten Mitchell has the versatility to play cornerback or safety and senior cornerback Kaiden Anderson has made positive strides in recent games, giving Temple’s staff the flexibility to let Jackson put in more practice time with the offense.
“Right now I’m doing more offense (in practice) because they want to see me. So every day at practice I go to DB, but when we go to team or specialists or individual, I’ll go with the running backs and work on drills,” he said. “So as of right now I’m doing both. I’ve got to learn all the plays. They’re giving me certain formations and packages. Now that I’m getting into it, this week they gave me four more new plays and I’ll gradually get more into it.”
Jackson, who turns 18 in November, is accustomed to being a young man on the move because of family circumstances. He was born in Temple and began school there but then also attended schools in Belton, Academy, Harker Heights and North Carolina before moving to Troy for the fifth through eighth grades.
He transferred to Lamar Middle School for the final two months of eighth grade, then played football at Temple as a freshman before moving back to Troy later that school year to live with his grandmother. He played varsity football for the Trojans for head coaches Ronnie Porter and Stephen Hermesmeyer as a sophomore and junior, respectively, then moved back to Temple halfway through the spring 2022 semester to live with his mother, Hillary Cuellar.
“Really it was just family stuff. I wanted to come back with my mom,” said Jackson, whose father, Steve Jackson Jr., died when Steve III was in seventh grade. “I think I’m pretty adaptable. My main goal is that nobody (in my family) has to work and we don’t have to worry about moving – being financially stable, really.
“When I was little, my dad used to always tell me, ‘If I get hurt, you've got to make the money.’ So even now, I still think about what he said. We’re trying to make it big so that our family doesn’t have to work anymore. That’s how I see it.”
Jackson, who maintains a 3.8 grade-point average, said a great benefit to moving back with his mom in Temple has been living again with his younger brother Lezlie Jackson, a sophomore reserve defensive back who’s made his mark this season on special teams. Lezlie blocked two punts in Temple’s 45-35 loss at 5A Division I state-ranked College Station, one of which Tutson returned for a touchdown.
“Lez, he hustles 100 percent of the time. You won’t ever have to tell Lez to give you 100 percent, because he’s always going 100 percent,” said Steve Jackson, who also has an older sister who attends Oklahoma and two other younger brothers – third-grader Christian and first-grader Ezra. “He’s pretty quick and he’ll play anywhere you tell him to play.”
Whereas football is Steve’s favorite sport, Lezlie’s primary sport is baseball. He played for Temple’s varsity baseball squad as a freshman and wants to continue playing that sport in college. Steve said his brother “plays football to stay in shape for baseball coming up.”
Steve said that even when he and Lezlie were living apart from each other, he’d come watch Lezlie’s freshman-level games last season on Thursdays and Lezlie would come watch his Troy games on Fridays.
“We always support each other,” Steve said. “It’s good being back together.”
Jackson said he kept up with his old Temple teammates such as current senior defenders Zion Moore and Taurean York while he was playing at Troy and has enjoyed reinforcing those friendships since he returned last spring.
“They still remembered me because I went to school here when I was younger,” Jackson said. “Even when I was in Troy, we still kept in contact. It made the bond stronger, which is pretty nice.”
Stewart said Jackson made a seamless transition back into the Wildcats’ program.
“He loves his teammates. The relationship piece for him is really big. Some kids are pretty uncomfortable, because we talk about ‘I love you’ and ‘love you guys,’” Stewart said. “Samari was a magnet to that kind of stuff. With Steve, it was a quick transition. I know he went to middle school with a lot of these guys, so there was some familiarity there, but it was almost like he was never gone. He moved in and he’s been thriving.”
PHYSICAL PLAYER: Temple senior cornerback Steve Jackson knocks down College Station receiver Jackson Verdugo during the Wildcats' 45-35 road loss to the state-ranked Cougars on Sept. 9. The 5-foot-9, 170-pound Jackson has made 25 tackles this season after posting a combined 70 tackles and five interceptions for Troy from 2020-21. (Photo by Mike Lefner, Temple ISD/Special to TempleBeltonSports.com)
Jackson said that although he always considered the 3A level – especially the grueling District 11-3A Division I – to be very competitive, the speed, physicality and intensity of 6A football clearly makes it a different animal.
“Everything is more physical and it gets your adrenaline rushing. In Troy, a lot of kids play football just to play. Here, everybody’s trying to make it somewhere, so everybody’s competing and having to go through that challenge. I like the competition and the vibe, basically,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot more hitting. Some of the guys are about the same size, but like I said, they’re there to be there. In 6A, they all hit, they’re going all-out and the game’s faster. The speed’s picked up.”
At no time was that more evident than when Temple hosted perennial 6A stalwart Martin on Sept. 16. The talented and opportunistic Warriors took advantage of a series of Wildcats mistakes to build a 32-11 lead midway through the second quarter.
Playing man-to-man coverage against Martin standout wide receiver Jeremiah Charles, Jackson was unable to get inside position on a post route and prevent Charles from catching a pass at the goal line for a 23-yard touchdown that made it 39-11. Jackson said he should have used better leverage to prevent that play.
In a 42-11 game midway through the third quarter, Jackson was covering 6-5, 210-pound receiver Ismael Smith-Flores, who caught a crossing pass in the middle of the field. Jackson attempted to put Smith-Flores on the turf with a hard shot, but the hulking receiver bounced off him and outran the defense for an 85-yard TD.
“I tried to hit him and honestly I thought he was going to go down, but I mean, he took the hit and he took it all the way. That was a good play by him,” said Jackson, who made a team-high 11 tackles against Martin. “If we make a mistake, you will see it. You’re 1-on-1 the whole time.
“My teammates and coaches told me, ‘It’s one play. Shake it off. You’ve got it the next time. Don’t worry about it.’ They’re real encouraging when it comes to stuff like that.”
Stewart previously discussed that some disciplinary/accountability issues and a lack of attention to detail hindered Temple that week as it prepared for play Martin. Jackson concurred.
“It was a mix of frustrating and disappointing,” he said. “We know we could have played better, but it’s disappointing when guys are jacking around all week and when it came to the game it shows.”
The subpar performance in the blowout loss to Martin ignited a fire in Jackson to respond with a sharp district opener at Bryan, and he certainly did – adding big-play rushing ability to what he already had done in a Wildcats uniform.
“Honestly, it was frustrating. All week (after the Martin game) I thought about it and I just felt I owed my teammates for that,” he said. “If those two touchdowns weren’t caught on me, we wouldn’t have been down those two touchdowns. So I felt like I owed them and I just needed to step it up.”
All Jackson needed against Bryan was that first play on offense – the 8-yard touchdown run – to demonstrate his potential worth on that side of the ball.
“It was more of a dive (play by design), but I saw the linebackers coming down so I bounced it out. Then the corner was coming down, but I gave him a jump-cut and just bounced it to the outside. I did get a little bit of pressure about that from the coaches, though,” he said with a laugh. “They told me to go straight downhill.”
Jackson’s nimble, elusive quality made an instant impact, and his status as a reliable, go-to performer confirmed what Hermesmeyer told Stewart in a phone call after Jackson moved back to Temple last spring from Troy, Stewart’s alma mater.
“Coach Hermesmeyer said he’s a great kid, a do-right kind of kid,” Stewart said. “He did tease him about his eyes. He said, ‘You tell him Coach Hermesmeyer said you better fix them eyes in the secondary.’ But Steve was obviously a very good 3A athlete.
"We saw a little bit in spring ball and a little bit in the summer that there’s some juice there. He’s very strong and works his tail off in the weight room. He’s pretty explosive. Some of that burst is natural, but a lot of it comes from the weight room.”
Jackson said he learned a lot during his sophomore season while playing with then-Troy star senior running back Zach Hrbacek, who rushed for 2,265 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2020 and now plays for NCAA FCS power Sam Houston State, where Stewart played football.
“It was nice playing with Zach. He would go downhill, but he told me that when I can, bounce it to the outside because no one’s going to catch you on the outside,” Jackson said. “I thought about that more last year after he left. He’s so fast and can stop and cut it right up. He and Samari, they’re both fast and can make quick cuts.”
Jackson, who hasn’t yet been part of a playoff-qualifying team, aspires to play college football and follow in the footsteps of not only Howard and Hrbacek but also his uncle Terrell Jackson, a former standout Temple quarterback and receiver who played at Buffalo.
“I’m trying to figure something out,” Jackson said about his college future. “I’ll play for anybody, as long as I get that chance.”
Jackson added 10 pounds of muscle with a steady strength program this summer and said feeling fully healthy has made a big difference in his well-rounded game.
“Running the ball, I can make the cut. Playing DB, I can drive (on the ball). It’s been real nice,” said Jackson, who finds it humorous that Temple’s coaches often confuse him with fellow defensive back Mitchell because of their similar statures and appearances.
Although Jackson’s game reps on offense have been limited to two plays at Bryan, Case has seen enough to know that the Troy transfer can be a difference-maker for Temple’s improving offense. After all, two touchdowns on two carries is as efficient as it gets.
“No doubt. Steve’s got a chance to be an all-district running back. Obviously (Harker Heights senior star Re’Shaun) Sanford is going to be there, but he’s got a chance to be pretty good in this district, even with the minimal amount of plays. I’m excited about getting him over there,” Case said. “We tried to wait through non-district to start borrowing some of our mercenaries, but now that we’re into district and it really matters, we’re going to use him.”
To say that Jackson is excited about his potential for important two-way action during the remainder of Temple’s season would be quite an understatement.
“I’ll probably still play the same amount of defense, but I’ll probably get a lot more carries,” he said. “I definitely think I’m going to score. I’m already excited about it.”