Of the eight players the Ravens picked in April’s NFL draft, the leap to the NFL might be the biggest for Asa Jackson. The Cal Poly cornerback was one of three small-school prospects the Ravens selected. Center Gino Gradkowski and safety Christian Thompson were the others, but unlike Jackson, they experienced major college football before transferring. And Jackson also had to miss all three weeks of the Ravens' OTA workouts.
The 22-year-old cornerback and return specialist finished up classes at Cal Poly last week and he was back with the Ravens this week for the first time since their rookie minicamp in early May. NFL rules don’t allow players like Jackson to practice with their new teams until school is out of session at their respective colleges.
Jackson knows he has to play catch up, and he says he is prepared to do the kind of unheralded dirty work on special teams to earn a spot on the 53-man roster. But even though he is undersized (5 feet 10, 191 pounds) and flew into the NFL under the radar, he says he won’t be intimidated by his competition in training camp.
“Even though everybody is a little bigger, a little faster, guys have a little bit more experience, it’s still football at the end of the day,” Jackson said Tuesday, glancing over at Ray Lewis as the legendary linebacker preached at the podium nearby. “I’m trying to keep it as simple as I can. I’m not trying to let names or size intimidate me. I’m just playing my game and doing what got me to this point -- just have fun with it, first and foremost.”
Jackson experienced some growing pains in the first two days of minicamp, though, to be fair, not too much stock should be put into a couple of days or practices. On one play Wednesday, rookie wide receiver Tommy Streeter, who is nine inches taller, pushed Jackson aside and beat him down the field for a deep ball (Streeter bailed him out by dropping it). Jackson probably didn’t see that blend of size and speed too often at Cal Poly.
Jackson, who hasn’t yet finished his degree but plans to do so eventually, has a long way to climb on the depth chart at cornerback, but he can make the 53-man roster out of training camp if he shows the coaching staff that they can count on him on special teams. The Ravens drafted him in the fifth round in part due to his prowess as a returner. At Cal Poly, Jackson established a school record by averaging 14.7 yards a punt return.
He also averaged 25.1 yards on 15 career kickoff returns, but he feels more comfortable returning punts. Either way, Jackson loves the thrill of getting the football in his hands and trying to take it back to the house.
“They haven’t told me too much [about my role],” Jackson said. “But that’s the goal, to try to work my way in through special teams -- showing the coaches that I can be of value there -- and then working my way into the corner depth as well. … I’ve got to learn everything first before I can start talking about where I fit in.”
As he was finishing up school at Cal Poly the past few weeks, Jackson worked out with his uncle, who runs a sports conditioning company in the Sacramento area. He tried to learn as much of the playbook as possible. And he was “eating as much as I can to keep my weight up.” He got a little quality time with his family, too.
"It was kind of nice to be home with my family, but it was real hard for me because I wanted to be out here with my teammates, getting all the reps that I could," Jackson said. "Even though I had my playbook with me, it's not the same. … I'm really happy to be back. The live bullets are tough, but that's what going to help."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun