Quintin Lewis remembers those mornings.
Four years ago, Tavyn Jackson joined Lewis’ football team at James Rickards High School in Tallahassee, Fla. The undersized cornerback was a ferocious tackler, playing safety and linebacker in the box. But he didn’t like the labels put on him, and did something about it.
“The first time I knew he was going to be great, he was young,” Lewis said. “He was in ninth grade. Everybody had told him, naw, you’re too small, you can’t do this. All he did was come in, he started coming in at 5:30 in the morning. He started lifting weights a little early, started getting some running in a little early. School started at 7:30. From 5:30 to 7:15, he worked out.”
The coach was there with him, talking, coaching and watching him grow into a dominant player, and eventually signing with South Carolina in February. He went from a natural hitter and tackler to something far more valuable.
“My best skill as a defensive back is probably just being man-on-man,” Jackson said. “I’ve got good feet. I can copy the receiver.
“When a receiver was doing the most on anybody else, that’s the dude I’d get. It’s been like that since my sophomore year.”
That’s the skill Lewis praised, first and foremost. The coach saw technique and polish, an understanding of the position that blends with good feet, hips and backpedal.
The Gamecocks coaching staff didn’t have to break out a big pitch for Jackson. They liked him, he liked them. He came for a camp, performed well in front of defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson and an offer quickly became a commitment.
“Coach T-Rob specifically told me every little thing that he loved about what I did,” Jackson said. “He said, ‘Oh yeah, we love this about you. Coach (Will) Muschamp said we love this about you.’ And what was key to me is when I got in the office to talk to him, he didn’t make it so big to where, ‘Oh at South Carolina, we have this, we have that.’ It was just simple conversation.”
He followed with a do-it-all senior season, piling up 76 tackles, three sacks, four interceptions and nine pass breakups. Jackson said the biggest step he took was gaining confidence, as Lewis relied on him in coverage and as a blitzer.
Jackson’s commitment survived a slew of late offers as the Gamecocks added more and more defensive backs (there were six total).
“That’s what everybody’s been trying to sell him on, to try to get him to decommit from South Carolina,” Lewis said. “He’s coming in, have to compete with seven, eight defensive backs. These guys are rated higher than you or do this better than you. The thing is this, he’s going to be the most complete defensive back there. He’s going to be the most versatile. He’s going to be the one with the least amount of excuses.”
Jackson, who hopes to study engineering, was bullish on what the group could do. The Gamecocks returned six members of last year’s secondary, including run focused nickel Antoine Wilder. USC gets a reserve corner off a redshirt (Chris Smith), plus a pair of Jackson’s classmates as early or junior-college enrollees.
But Muschamp said at the end of the spring game he expects some incoming defensive backs will have to contribute. Jackson is ready.
“Our class now, I’m not saying we seem more athletic,” Jackson said. “But as we’re coming in, we’re just, I would say for cornerback and safety, we are a step behind them. Literally a step. It doesn’t take much to get to that point.
“We’re coming in trying to do something.”