Here’s an inside look how a player who was a running back with 1,500 yards last season during a combine on his own thought he’d start working out with the slot receivers. Giles Jackson from Freedom of Oakley went on to become one of the nation’s top college prospects at that position.
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It wasn’t that much of a gamble for Giles Jackson to run routes as a slot receiver during various spring and early summer football showcase events. The senior from Freedom of Oakley, after all, caught 47 passes for 842 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore.
But Jackson played running back for the Falcons last season and while there was one college offer from San Jose State as of the middle of last January, the 5-foot-9, 175-pounder knew that some colleges were looking for running backs with more size.
“I was at the All-American Army combine (in Texas) and was with the running backs when some of the coaches told me I was the best at running routes and catching the ball out of the backfield,” Jackson recalled during a recent phone interview. “I switched to slot receiver and it took off from there.”
Jackson says it was “my idea” to make the position switch for college coaches to evaluate and it wasn’t done at the request of anyone else. What “took off from there” was Jackson’s college offers. Once he showed what he could do playing as a slot receiver at other combines and events later in the spring, the offers came rushing in like water from a broken dam.
In early July, Jackson narrowed his college finalists to five, a group of major college programs Michigan, Oregon, USC, Florida and Oregon State. He was still uncommitted on his own Twitter page as of this week.
Earlier in May, Jackson wasn’t in any of the top 100 lists of California players from the Class of 2019 by any of the major recruiting networks (247/Scout, ESPN and Rivals). By the middle of July, he was in the top 30 in at least one of them and still possibly moving up even higher. He was one of the top receivers at Nike’s Oakland regional version of The Opening back in March, which earned him an invite to Nike’s The Opening that was held in early July at the Dallas Cowboys’ massive training complex in Texas.
In fact, if there was an award given to the one football player in California who blew up the most during the recent spring-early summer combine and camp season, then Giles would be the choice.
“It’s a testament to him in his understanding of the team and that he is a team player,” said first-year Freedom head coach Andrew Cotter, who previously was the head coach at Moreau Catholic of Hayward and is taking over for former head coach Kevin Hartwig, who resigned after a stint from 2002. “He just wants to play.
“It talks about his perseverance and his passion. A lot of times when kids don’t have those initial looks from colleges they shut it down. For Giles, he said, ‘Hey, this isn’t me. I’ll do what it takes.’ Now, he’s one of the biggest recruits in the nation.”
So was it just simply a position switch for colleges that turned the tide for Jackson? That might not be fair to his work ethic.
“I just knew I had to work harder than ever,” he said. “After awhile, I knew changing positions was going to help and I knew I had to put in extra time in the weight room.”
It also helped Jackson get into a certain mental framework heading into the camps and combines he attended.
“I felt like an underdog everytime I hit the field. It was like all the hard work was paying off, but there was more to do.”
That underdog mentality was evident when Jackson played as a sophomore, not just for himself but for the entire Freedom squad. The Falcons weren’t expected to challenge either perennial power Pittsburg or nearby Antioch (which had Najee Harris, the nation’s No. 1 running back now at Alabama) for the Bay Valley Athletic League title, but they beat both of them and were 11-0 and at No. 9 in the state before running into longtime CIF North Coast Section champion De La Salle in the first-ever NCS Open Division championship. That was followed by a loss to St. Mary’s of Stockton in the CIF Division 1-AA NorCal regional bowl game.
After catching those 13 touchdown passes that season, Jackson was switched to become more of a primary running back by Hartwig for last season. He was one of the best in the region, rushing for 1,586 yards and 22 TDs for a team that wasn’t as successful (Pitt was improved and Liberty of Brentwood emerged) but still went 9-3 and reached the NCS Division I championship before losing to Liberty 37-0.
Some slot receivers who’ve made it big, such as 2011 Lincoln of Stockton grad Brandin Cooks (who signed an $80 million four-year deal with the Los Angeles Rams this summer), have shown their speed while competing in track. Jackson missed his freshman track season with a hip injury and then missed his sophomore season with a torn meniscus. After that, he decided to concentrate on football only. He knows about Cooks, but said his favorite slot receivers in the NFL are Tyreek Hill (Kansas City Chiefs) and Tavon Austin (who ironically is the player Cooks is replacing in that role for the Rams).
Cotter, who was once a teammate of Hartwig’s at Liberty, didn’t want to give away his game plans in early August but it should be obvious that Jackson will continue to play running back this season and also will line up in the slot when certain matchups arise.
“The biggest thing is that he’s going to do whatever is best for the high school,” Cotter said. “In this day and age, it’s easier to move kids around (on offense). The kids have been with 7-on-7 teams and they all know how to run routes. He’s gonna play tailback, but the biggest thing is going to be to get him the ball in space. That’s where he’s so dangerous.”
“I think it’s going to be fine,” Jackson said of Cotter replacing Hartwig. “Right now, we just need to bond as a team. The offense may be more of a power offense, more of a pro-style offense. Whatever it takes.”
This year, even with Jackson doing what he does, it may be harder for the Falcons to stay close with both Pitt and Liberty. Both teams return the bulk of their lineups and both are among the top 10 preseason teams for Northern California.
In Freedom’s first two games, Jackson was indeed more of a jack-of-all-trades standout instead of a dominating running back. Before the Falcons lost their third game to California of San Ramon, Jackson had 10 carries for 70 yards, 10 catches for 151 yards and two TDs, a 65-yard punt return score and not one but two interception return TDs.
“The BVAL is a traditional powerhouse league and should be even more so this season,” Cotter said. “Out here, football is very, very important to the communities.”
Being in that underdog role in some of those games, however, may be just where Giles Jackson wants to be. He’s already proven what he can do when he’s feeling that way.