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March 23, 2007It was in DeSean Jackson's fourth year that close observers saw he could develop into a premier receiver.
Not his fourth year at Long Beach (Calif.) Poly High School, when Jackson was rated a five-star prospect by Rivals.com.
Just in his fourth year.
"When I was growing up, living in Hollywood, my brother picked up a football and threw it to me and I caught it," said Jackson, who now stars as a 6-foot, 170-pound receiver for the University of California. "I was about 4. From that day on, I was catching the ball."
Byron Jackson, a former San Jose State receiver who spent two seasons on the Kansas City Chiefs developmental squad, is 18 years older than his DeSean. Byron remembers the story a little differently.
"We had a Nerf football and I would throw it high in the air and DeSean always dropped it," Byron said. "One day I said, 'If you catch it I'll give you five dollars.' And he caught it. It seemed like every time I put money on the table ? every time ? he caught it."
At that rate, last season would have cost Byron $295. If bonuses for touchdowns and punt returns were added, DeSean could have been one of the most expensive players in college football.
"When the lights come on, DeSean shines," Byron said. "I always have an under-the-table deal with him. I'll say, 'DeSean, do this and I'll have something for you.' I might wind up being broke."
That's the cost of backing a breakaway threat.
Last season DeSean Jackson, a legitimate 4.3 speedster, caught 59 passes for 1,060 yards and nine touchdowns. He also led the nation with an 18.2-yard average on punt returns and scored four touchdowns. His touchdowns covered an average of 43.9 yards and he scored seven from 40 yards or farther.
DeSean was raised to be a successful athlete. His father, Bill Jackson, sheltered him from the temptations of inner-city Los Angeles by keeping him involved in athletics. Bill drove DeSean to football practice, baseball practice and track practice. And when Bill wasn't there, Byron and his friends Derrick Davis and Travis Clark - who also played college football - and Irving Fresh were there. The group was DeSean's personal coaching staff from Pee-Wee football to high school.
"All four of them were always working out with me," DeSean said. "Every one of them could bring something to the table. Byron was a receiver. Derrick was a defensive back. They had their different areas."
When DeSean was a high school freshman, Clark predicted DeSean would be an All-American by 2006.
"We got that on a video camera," DeSean said. "It's funny how that worked out."
Burned defensive backs and punt coverage teams would probably fail to see the humor. The 2007 season could be worse on Cal's opponents because Jackson figures to be better.
California quarterback Nate Longshore returns, so Jackson won't have to adjust to a new passer. Senior receivers Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, who each caught 46 passes last season, will make defenses think twice about stacking their coverage to contain Jackson.
Though running back Marshawn Lynch left Cal early for the NFL, talented tailback Justin Forsett returns. Forsett will force opponents to respect Cal's running game, which figures to create more room in the defensive secondary.
The Bears' schedule seems to foretell a big year for Jackson. Seven of Cal's opponents ranked 42nd or lower in pass defense in 2006. Nine ranked 52nd or lower in punt coverage, including six that ranked 84th or worse.
But most of all, Jackson said he has worked to get better.
"After the bowl game (a 45-10 Holiday Bowl victory over Texas A&M) I got a little time off and that let me focus on little things I need to get better on," he said. "I've been working real hard in the offseason. I've got a new attitude to just get better."
Jackson was vague on the areas in which he needed to improve, but Tedford wasn't.
"I think there are a lot of things he wants to work on, be it precision route-running and understanding coverages ... those types of things," Tedford said. "You get better each and every year. He's still a young player. There are always little nuances and fundamental techniques you can improve on. That's what he's talking about."
After Jackson's spectacular 2006 campaign, it seems reasonable to assume California coaches spent a lot of time talking about ways to get the ball in DeSean's hands more frequently.
That's what Byron Jackson is hoping.
"He can make something happen every time he has the opportunity to have the ball in his hands," Byron said. "I can just hope they give DeSean many opportunities to touch the ball. I don't think he's been spotlighted any time in his career. If he ever has the opportunity to be featured he'll hold on to it."
Byron suspects DeSean would hold on to that opportunity as tightly as he once held on to that Nerf football.
And those $5 bills.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.