Duke’s Jackson ready to show last year was just the start

He arrived at Duke more comfortable at wide receiver, prone to late-night fast-food cravings that added the wrong kind of weight to his 6-foot frame.

Now Deon Jackson is a different person mentally and physically, and those are good things for the Blue Devils.

Last fall as a sophomore, Jackson emerged as one of the ACC’s most explosive threats on offense, given his ability to produce big plays in the running, passing and return games.

His versatility gives Duke hope its offense can be productive this season even after quarterback Daniel Jones left a year early to become the No. 6 overall pick in last April’s NFL Draft.

“The versatility of Deon creates a lot of possibilities,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “I really believe he may be the most versatile back that I’ve been around in my career.”

A junior running back, Jackson scored nine touchdowns last season. But the 75-yard run against Miami and the 74-yard catch and run off a Jones pass at Pittsburgh are examples of the explosiveness Duke hopes to unleash more often this season.

“He is just tapping into his potential right now,” Duke running backs coach Re’quan Boyette said.

Jackson is still a relative newcomer to running back after playing wide receiver early in his high school career. He retained his pass-catching skills and is now big and strong enough to run between the tackles on running plays if needed.

Getting to that point physically wasn’t easy, though.

Recruited at 180 pounds out Atlanta’s Pace Academy, Jackson weighed 227 pounds during his freshman season at Duke in 2017. He knew he needed to be bigger to play running back but poor eating habits meant be bulked up while losing stamina.

“He couldn’t go three plays in practice without getting tired,” Boyette said.

He played in 12 games but only carried the ball 29 times for 89 yards.

Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jackson worked on his conditioning and played around 220 pounds last season when he lead Duke with 847 yards on 161 carries, bumping his average from 3.1 yards per carry to 5.3 yards.

As Duke prepares to begin practice on Aug. 2, Jackson said he’s now at 214 pounds following another solid offseason of conditioning and weight training work.

“Just looking at where he is now,” Boyette said, “he has changed his body and changed everything. He feels the best he has felt. He’s faster, stronger and little lighter. That’s a direct result from the season that he had. He’s hungry and wants that success.”

Jackson’s breakout performance, the game when all his talents were on display most vividly, came last Oct. 27 on a rainy day at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field.

Jackson rushed for 162 yards, had 89 receiving yards and added 152 yards on kickoff returns. His 403 yards all-purpose yards set a Duke single-game record. Only two other players in ACC history -- N.C. State’s Tobias Palmer with 496 yards against Clemson in 2012 and Wake Forest’s John Leach with 411 against Maryland in 1993 -- have topped 400 all-purpose yards in a league game.

Duke lost the game 54-45 but knew it had something special in Jackson, who started the season as a reserve and became a starter when Brittain Brown was injured.

“It just showed me how prepared I was to step in and play,” Jackson said. “How much attention to detail I have. From watching Brittain and learning from him, learning from him and Shaun (Wilson in 2017), that helped me step in and produce right away.”

The great thing for Duke is that, in addition to Jackson’s emergence, Brown is healthy from the various injuries that nagged him last season.

“It gives me chills just thinking about the talents of both of those guys,” Boyette said. “Having both of them back healthy. They are going to help this doggone football team tremendously this year.”

Cutcliffe and his staff will find ways to utilize both of them, even using sets where they are both on the field at the same time.

“I’m definitely looking forward to it,” Jackson said. “I love our offense. Definitely anywhere they put me at, I’m looking forward to it. I’m looking forward to doing it all.”

One area Jackson, Brown and all Duke’s running backs have worked this offseason to improve is their ability to break tackles to gain extra yardage. Last season, according to ESPN, Duke’s running backs averaged only 2.7 yards after contact per carry. That was 11th in the ACC.

“That was one of the biggest coaching points in spring,” Jackson said. “Lowering our pads. Not go down as easy. It’s definitely a point of emphasis.”

Duke needs as much production out of its running game as possible. The Blue Devils have a new starting quarterback in Quentin Harris as they replace all of the starting skill players on offense except Jackson. Doing all that while playing a schedule that includes a season-opening game with Alabama and a visit from Notre Dame in November could spell trouble for Duke.

Jackson, though, said the running backs are ready to produce to help Duke’s transition.

“We have some proven running backs,” Jackson said. “A lot of attention will be on us. We’re putting a lot of pressure on us.”

Duke needs them to come through. Now in this third season as a college running back, Jackson is ready to show last year’s break-out performance was only the beginning.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.