BY LARRY VAUGHT
He’s been piling up preseason honors the same way he has piled up successful blocks but Kentucky senior center Drake Jackson won’t let the accolades go to his head.
“As much as I appreciate preseason recognition and I know it is earned on the past, I would rather be there for postseason recognition,” said Jackson.
Some players talk about living their dream. Jackson truly is.
“It’s one of those things that no matter how much I try to sit down and reflect and think about, this is where I wanted to be and really was my childhood dream,”Jackson, a Woodford County High School graduate, said. “I am from small-town Kentucky. Never imagined this happening. I am getting publicity like few linemen ever do.
“It still blows my mind every time I see that. Part of me says there is still so much more I can prove. So as glad as I am to see it (preseason recognition), that’s not my end goal. That is not all want.:
Depending on how the 2020 season goes if there is one, Jackson could leave UK being regarded as the best center ever to play for the Wildcats, a possibility he downplays even though in 974 pass-block snaps he’s allowed just one sack. He also had 44 knockdown blocks in 2019 to earn first-team all-SEC honors.
“Look at the whole of what coach Stoops has done and all these honors are a testament to how he recruited and developed players,” Jackson said. “I have been teammates with the best running back (Benny Snell) at UK. Played with the best defensive player (Josh Allen) out of UK.
“Before it is all said and done, there are a couple of other dudes who might be the best to come through at their positions. Probably the best kicker in Austin McGinnis. Maybe the best punter (in All-American teammate Max Duffy).”
Jackson said the common denominator with all those players is Stoops, who came to UK with a vision he sold that players bought.
“You can judge a coach’s career off what his individual players have done and how he has elevated the program,” Jackson said. “For him to have already had the best kicker, punter, running back, defensive player and some of the best offensive linemen says a lot about him.”
Jackson was part of huge in-state recruiting trifecta for Stoops when he signed along with Lafayette offensive lineman Landon Young and Paintsville linebacker Kash Daniel. Signing that trio solidified Stoops’ stature with many UK fans.
Jackson had to redshirt the 2016 season when both Daniel and Young were playing. However, he certainly has no regrets about that because it allowed him more time to change as person which led to changes in how he played.
“I have changed more as a person (than player) and that has helped me change as a player. I am a firm believer it clicks at different ages for everybody. Your ability to understand responsibility, accountability, discipline are big fancy terms. It just clicks,” Jackson said.
“It clicked with Josh Paschal as freshman, clicks with some guys five years out of college. I was very fortunate that my freshman year I was forced to have to figure it out because of my situation.”
Not only did he not play as a freshman, he was on the bench the first four games of his redshirt freshman season in 2017.
“I had to change how I handled my business and that made me a more mature person and made me a better football player. It’s not like I learned technique and started hitting heavier weight in the weight room. It was about mindset,” Jackson said.
“That is what made me better. I got to work on my technique and did get stronger but huge improvements come when you learn how to think and prepare. You become a a smarter, more well rounded person and that will make you a better player because it makes you think different.”
Alabama native Dave Hopewell, now an insurance agent in Harrodsburg, Ky., was the starting center on UK’s 1976 Peach Bowl team and 1977 team that went 10-1. He’s been a fan since his graduation and seldom misses seeing a game.
Is Jackson the best center he’s seen in his 40 plus years as a UK fan?
“Jon Toth was good and was bigger but overall Drake seems to have all the unique tools a great center needs. He has the size to play center and certainly has the football savvy to do it,” Hopewell said. “Overall the best? I would say so.”
Hopewell says giving up just one sack while making 33 straight starts tells him not only does Jackson have great technique but also studies opponents.
“You can tell he is very coachable and knows his technique. His footwork and hands are really good. He can get in front of people, get his hands up and keep them off. He doesn’t make mistakes. He knows where he is supposed to be and what to do when he gets there,” Hopewell said.
Hopewell said when he played UK basically “just lined up and tried to blow you off the football” but now Jackson has to talk more to let other linemen know what the defense might be doing.
“Defenses back then would stunt and try a twist or two, but nothing like now and that’s why Drake has to do such a great job calling out those formations,” Hopewell said. “It’s just part of what makes him such a great center.”