7/12/03 - Ray Jackson didn't carry the ball or throw a block during the 2002 football season, but he may look back upon it someday as the most important year of his gridiron career.
Make no mistake, Jackson is rated among the high-potential rookies entering the 2003 Bengals season. The former University of Cincinnati running back, who began his college career at Michigan, gets notably high praise from Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
"As of now, from what we've seen in the mini-camps, I can't wait to see him in pads," Lewis says. "He still has a lot to prove, because training camp is a different story than mini-camp, but he has tremendous athletic ability. He might be one of our fastest players. And it's been impressive the way he's kept on coming. In our workouts, he seemed to get better with each day."
And while it's not unusual for a head coach
to get excited talking about a rookie, Jackson is not exactly Carson Palmer in terms of first-year pedigree. Not only did Jackson go undrafted after closing his college career in 2001, he didn't manage even a free-agent invite to an NFL training camp.
For most players, there's a message in that, the message to start thinking about another line of work. But while Jackson was staying busy as a non-player in 2001, working for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission and later in a Wal-Mart store, he didn't give up on getting an NFL shot.
Far from giving up, he worked out as never before in his life, and literally transformed himself into a prospect with appeal to NFL scouts. When he left UC in 2001, Jackson was a 215-pounder who ran 4.6 in the 40-yard dash. Presently, he carries 227 pounds and has run a 4.41 in the 40. He was signed by Cincinnati on March 13.
"Not having football in my life last year was a humbling experience," the Indianapolis native said. "But I look at it as a learning experience. It made me want it even more. I come to work every day now like it's my last day, like it's do or die. and I haven't made it yet."
Jackson has plenty of competition in seeking a roster spot at halfback. The No. 1 spot of course belongs to Corey Dillon, one of only four rushers in NFL history to gain 1000 or more yards in each of his first six seasons. Brandon Bennett has been a reliable backup for Dillon for several years, and Rudi Johnson, a fourth-round draft pick in 2001, still is waiting in line for a true chance to show his stuff.
But Jackson's excellent speed on a big frame could lead to kickoff return opportunities that could enhance his chances of making the squad. It's a dimension he didn't really show in college. He had only 23 rushing attempts in two seasons at Michigan (1997-98), and after transferring to UC for the 2000-01 seasons, his numbers were good but not spectacular. His Bearcats totals for a two-year career were 1400 rushing yards on 346 carries (4.0 avg.) and 40 pass receptions for 582 yards (14.6). He scored 18 touchdowns.
"My dream ever since I was a little kid has been to play in the NFL," Jackson said. "I got the right opportunities. I went to Michigan, and then I had a good two seasons at UC. But it didn't work out for me right away. Now maybe it will."
Surely, Jackson is no longer among the longest-of-long-shots category that he found himself in during 2002.
When Marvin Lewis predicts you are "going to be an exciting guy for people to follow," you are a long shot no more.