Spotlight on emerging WRs
Chargers' Jackson, Cowboys' Austin, Colts' duo get their playoff showcases
During the 2006 season, Chargers executive Jimmy Raye walked into Lofton's office with a tape of Vincent Jackson's highlights at the University of Northern Colorado. Lofton watched a few plays before Raye asked Lofton how big he thought the receiver might be.
Lofton guessed 6-foot-2, 195 pounds.
"Raye tells me he's 6-4, 235 pounds, and I just said, 'No way,'" Lofton says.
"That's the unique thing about Vincent. A lot of big guys are cumbersome, but he's such a skilled athlete that he moves like a much smaller person."
The now-6-5 Jackson is even bigger than many had anticipated. He's one of a handful of young star receivers in the spotlight this postseason who have blossomed from relatively modest NFL beginnings.
The Chargers' Jackson is expected to be Philip Rivers' prime target Sunday when the Jets visit in an AFC divisional playoff. Earlier that day, Dallas Cowboys starMiles Austin, who hails from Monmouth (N.J.) University, leads his team against the Minnesota Vikings in an NFC divisional playoff game.
Those games come the day after Pierre Garcon (Mount Union) and Indianapolis Colts teammate Austin Collie (BYU) aid four-time MVP Peyton Manning against the Baltimore Ravens in another AFC divisional playoff game.
Jackson figures to have Jets all-world cornerback Revis shadowing him all over San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium. In his fifth season, Jackson's star has been rising steadily as one of the NFL's best deep threats, averaging 18.6 yards per catch in 2008, 17.2 this past season.
Jackson was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2005, beating the odds for someone who did not attract many FBS scholarship offers. As a youth, Jackson seemed to win as many accolades for his brains as he did for his brawn.
He's the only child of Terrence and Sherry Jackson. They were a nomadic military family. Described by his mom as a "math geek," Jackson has a creative edge: He once won a national poetry contest in Germany.
In 1993, the family moved outside of Colorado Springs, Colo. Jackson played football at Widefield High, where he earned a 4.3 GPA and graduated fourth in his class of almost 400. Widefield primarily ran the ball; as a result, no major schools recruited Jackson for football. He was interested in Columbia University and the Colorado School of Mines, mostly for academic reasons, before the University of Northern Colorado began recruiting him.
"His high school coach kept telling me, 'I have this young man who is the Randy Moss of Colorado Springs,'" Collins says. "I watched his highlight tape and said, 'Holy cow! Why isn't anyone else recruiting this kid?'"
Collins attended one of Jackson's basketball games and was sold. Jackson accepted a part-academic, part-athletic scholarship to Northern Colorado, located in Greeley, Colo.
"I was thinking I'm here for school first," Jackson says. "You hear so much as a kid that it's one in a million making the NFL, and it's what people should tell kids. But when it's pounded in your head, it's tough to think, 'I'm going to have a pro future."
Jackson also excelled at basketball at Northern Colorado, but by his senior season, he finally saw consistent time on the football team.
"I had [1,382 yards receiving], and people said if I had a good senior year, I might get someone to come out for a pro day," Jackson says.
"Athletically, he was so much more superior to a lot of the guys at our level," says former Northern Colorado teammate Reed Doughty, now a Washington Redskins defensive back. "He'd be triple-covered, and we'd still throw it to him."
San Diego wasn't one of the NFL teams Jackson worked out for after the Senior Bowl and combine (where he ran an impressive 4.45 in the 40). So he was surprised when the Chargers drafted him in the second round of 2005 as the 61st overall pick and signed him to a five-year contract.
"I was interested to get out here and figure out who the San Diego receivers were," Jackson recalls. "I felt like it was kind of open for me."
But like his college years, Jackson had to wait his turn. He saw spot duty as a receiver.
Head coach Norv Turner's arrival in 2008, coupled with the maturation of Rivers, meant the Chargers' passing game began to flourish.
Given his chance, Jackson began to emerge that season and began attracting even more attention this campaign.
"He's such a big receiver who's also able to run a route," Chargers tight end Antonio Gates says. "That's very rare. Usually you have a big, strong pass receiver and you're just throwing the ball in the air, but he has the ability to get in and out of cuts."
Jackson studies the game relentlessly, often watching film while recalling former All-Pro Lofton's advice on critiquing other receivers' hand placement or body control.
"When you think about covering Jackson, the first thing you think about his size," Oakland Raiders Pro Bowl cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha said via e-mail. "He is big enough to catch the tough balls -- it's almost it's as if he prides himself on that because you see it happen so often."
Like Jackson, Miles Austin played collegiate football on a partial athletic, part-academic scholarship. After a solid high school football career, the Garfield, N.J., native headed to Monmouth University, the only school to offer him a scholarship, where he set the record for receiving yards (2,867).
"During my junior year, I started thinking, 'You know what? I'm kind of beating these guys consistently,'" Austin told ESPNDallas.com. "But at my school, no one had ever gone [to the NFL]. I'm sure if you go to a bigger school it's normal for guys to think like that, but I wasn't thinking like that right away."
Initially, neither was the NFL. The Cowboys signed him as an undrafted free agent, and for his first three seasons, Austin worked primarily on special teams and had only 18 receptions.
"Special teams is really effort and will," Austin says. "You've got to run down and hit the guy but I was like, 'Let me start working on this receiver stuff, too.'"
Austin has enjoyed a breakout year this season. He totaled 1,320 yards and 81 receptions in the regular season and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Did he foresee this kind of success while at Monmouth?
"I was just thinking about being a history teacher, to be honest," Austin says. "But during my junior year, I was like, 'Wait a second. I can play.'"
Still, his immediate production alongside the second-year receiver Garcon surprised many. In the wake of Colts great Marvin Harrison's departure and young veteran Anthony Gonzalez's injury-plagued season, Indianapolis needed Collie and Garcon to produce. The duo combined for 107 catches, 1,441 yards and 11 touchdowns in the 2009 regular season.
"To have as many opportunities as I've had to contribute, it was a surprising factor to me," Collie says. "But I knew that if your number gets called and you don't know what you're doing, you may not get a second chance. So I work at it every day."
Garcon played a year of collegiate football at Norwich University (Northfield, Vt.) before transferring to Mount Union College in Ohio. A sixth-round draft pick of the Colts in 2008, he was a backup as a rookie.
"I was just happy to be on the team," Garcon says. "I knew I wouldn't start right away."
"When you've got great guys like we do around you, you'd be a fool not to ask questions and pick their brain," Collie says.
All four breakout players will have more chances this weekend to establish themselves as rising stars.
Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com. ESPNDallas.com's Tim MacMahon contributed to this feature.
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2009 NFL PLAYOFFS: ROAD TO MIAMI
Colts 30, Jets 17
Saints 31, Vikings 28 (OT)
Vikings 34, Cowboys 3
Jets 17, Chargers 14
Saints 45, Cardinals 14
Colts 20, Ravens 3
Jets 24, Bengals 14
Cowboys 34, Eagles 14
Ravens 33, Patriots 14
Cardinals 51, Packers 45 OT
- Dallas Cowboys Merchandising Youth Miles Austin Navy T-shirt