Branden Jackson says every sack he recorded in high school made him feel like he had just been elected prom king.
So what does he expect the feeling to be like when he brings opposing quarterbacks to the turf in college games?
“It’s going to feel like winning the lotto,” said the Texas Tech freshman defensive end, who redshirted last season after arriving in Lubbock from McKeesport, Pa. “I can’t wait to see it.”
Tech hopes it can hit the pass-rushing jackpot a little more often this season. The Red Raiders failed to put consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks in 2011, which granted them time to stand in the pocket and pick apart the secondary.
The Red Raiders ranked ninth in the Big 12 in sacks (16) and last in interceptions (five) last season. The latter was due, at least in part, to an inability to force quarterbacks into hurried throws.
Citing the new additions at defensive end — such as the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Jackson and converted linebacker Pete Robertson (6-foot-3, 230) — and increased depth at tackle, the coaching staff is hopeful that trend can be reversed.
“I think it’s going to be a lot of fun to watch this defensive line,” Tech coach Tommy Tuberville said. “I think they’re underrated a little bit. That could just be me hoping a little bit, but watching them in practice, they fight and compete going against a pretty good offensive line.
“It will be interesting to see if our pass rush has improved like we hope it has.”
Jackson believes he can help author a turnaround. He said sitting on the sidelines last season was “one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to experience,” but he used the time to add 30 pounds to his frame and familiarize himself with some of the intricacies of the defensive end position.
In other words, he knew he wouldn’t be able to get by on sheer athleticism like he did in high school.
“Defensive end is really like an art now,” said Jackson, who is currently the first-team left end. “People always say, ‘You’re playing the easiest position. You don’t really have any responsibilities, except for making sure nobody gets outside of you.’ But, actually, a lot goes into it. You have to know an offensive tackle’s tendencies. You have to know which shoulder to hit to make them turn which way.”
Jackson said he has paid particular attention to where he places his hands when he fires off the line of scrimmage. He has come to realize that pinpointing the right spots to strike an opposing lineman and push him off balance is an exact science that takes time to master.
“It’s just surprising how small something like placing your hand on the left shoulder can actually get an offensive lineman to turn his hips the way you want him to,” Jackson said. “It’s a lot more technical than people think.”
Still, Jackson has been a quick study. On the second day of fall camp, he stepped in front of a screen pass for an interception off Seth Doege. Jackson said he had been burned on the same play a day before, but he realized where he needed to make an adjustment after watching the practice film.
He further stood out on Saturday when he recorded a pair of sacks during the team’s first fall scrimmage. (In scrimmages, a sack is awarded once a defender touches the quarterback.)
“I think he’s done a really good job of wanting to be good and understanding, ‘Hey, I’m a freshman and I want to be good, so I need to listen to things people tell me,’” first-year Tech defensive coordinator Art Kaufman said. “You don’t just make that play. You learn how to make that play through repetitions. Not just repetitions on the field, but repetitions in the meeting room, the film room and that type of thing.”
Another defensive end trying to learn on the fly is Robertson, who came to Tech last season as a safety after playing quarterback and wide receiver at Longview High. By the end of his first fall camp, Robertson had been moved to linebacker, only to move again — this time to defensive end — during the latter stages of spring practice in March.
That was a lot to handle for a player who conceded last week he “never thought I would play defense in my life, at all.”
But Robertson, who is receiving second-team snaps behind Dartwan Bush at right end, is taking the most recent move in stride, and coaches have been impressed with his quick reaction time off the line.
“I’m not afraid to try any position,” Robertson said. “So I tried it and said, ‘This is pretty easy.’ I liked it, so I told them I’d work with it. I’d stay there.”
Kaufman also expects the interior of the defensive line to be more of a presence in pass-rushing efforts, and Saturday he named senior Leon Mackey as a player he expects production from in that arena.
“He’s not a big guy as far as weight numbers, but he is an explosive guy,” Kaufman said.
No returning Tech defensive player had more than two sacks last year, so the opportunity is there for players who can find a way to get to quarterbacks.
For his part, Jackson is eager to cash in some lottery tickets.
“I just can’t wait to get there,” Jackson said, “and see what I’ve really got.”
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