Last season simply ate away at Marlin
Jackson. You could see it in his body language as he struggled
through off-the-field issues, injuries and a position change. You
can hear it in his voice now as he talks about what frustration he
endured during his junior year at Michigan.

Jackson entered 2003 fresh off of one of the best seasons ever
put together by a Michigan defensive back. He finished it miserably
staring at the Rose Bowl scoreboard — caught in the quandary
between pride at the Wolverines’ first trip to Pasadena since
1997, and the personal frustration over having less to do with that
success than he would have liked.

And so, despite the NFL calling his name, Jackson opted to
return to Ann Arbor for his senior season.

“The season didn’t go well last year,” Jackson
said. “It didn’t start well. It didn’t end well.
I couldn’t leave Michigan on that note.

“That was a low note, and I wanted to leave on a high
note.”

 

Bittersweet at the top

 

People might listen to Jackson describe Michigan’s magical
Big Ten title run and Rose Bowl berth as a disappointment and think
to themselves that it carries selfish connotations.

It’s a thought that couldn’t be further from the
truth.

The real story is that Jackson — who was one of the
nation’s best at cornerback in 2002, setting a Michigan
single-season record for pass breakups with 18 while recording
three interceptions and 51 tackles — took a personal hit in
order to help the team.

Entering last season, the Wolverines were dangerously thin at
the safety position.

So Jackson was asked to move from corner to help Michigan offset
that concern, a request that he agreed to in hopes of helping the
Wolverines get their best defense on the field.

“(Moving Jackson to safety) gives us the advantage of
putting our 11 best players on the field,” Michigan coach
Lloyd Carr said when the move was announced. “It gets Marlin
in a position, as a free safety or a safety who’s in the
middle of the field, where he’s the kind of guy who’s
capable of making a lot of plays.”

But the Sharon, Pa., native never fully became accustomed to the
change.

Faced with different defensive assignments and a more
physically-demanding position, Jackson struggled to embrace his new
role.

“It was frustrating,” Jackson said, his eyes looking
like he’s ready to blindside someone just thinking about it.
“I was frustrated the whole season. But being that I accepted
(the position change), it meant that I had to bite my tongue. I
accepted it, I took it with open arms, so I had to play it out. I
couldn’t say anything to (Carr).

“I just had to bide my time.”

Unfortunately, Jackson wound up with more time to kill than he
would have liked. Jackson was charged with misdemeanor assault for
a fight that ensued at a party in June of 2003 and, as a result,
was suspended from Michigan’s season-opening win over Central
Michigan.

Then, just when he was starting to feel more confident at
safety, Jackson hurt his hamstring in the Wolverines’
thrilling come-from-behind victory at Minnesota.

If Jackson was at the pinnacle following his first two seasons
as a Wolverine, then he reached rock bottom in his third.

And it left him needing to figure out if he wanted to be here
for a fourth.

 

Seeking help, Deciding alone

 

Jackson wanted to come back to Michigan. But he also wanted to
play cornerback again.

Why?

“I’m the best corner in the country,” Jackson
said after the Wolverines’ loss to Southern Cal. in the Rose
Bowl. “If I’m back here, I’ll be at
corner.”

Now, Jackson will say that he didn’t necessarily mean for
what he said to come across the way it did. Then, it was likely the
culmination of what had been a brutal season for the Michigan
star.

Still, the request to move back to the cornerback spot
didn’t fall on deaf ears. With young safeties like Ryan Mundy
and Brandent Englemon stepping up their play, the Wolverines no
longer had a driving need to fill that position.

So Jackson would have his corner spot back. It was just a matter
of whether he’d be playing it in college or the NFL.

To decide, Jackson would discuss the situation with two talented
wide receivers.

He first tracked Roy Williams, formerly of Texas and currently
playing for the Detroit Lions.

“I called Roy Williams because I knew he had decided to
come back (for his senior season),” Jackson said. “He
told me to make the decision that was best for me.”

Jackson also sought out his Wolverine teammate that was also
facing the decision of whether or not go pro.

“I talked to (wide receiver) Braylon (Edwards). He came
and asked me what I was going to do, he talked about what he was
going to do.”

But in spite of those discussions, Jackson would have to make
the decision for himself.

“The funny thing about it was that my family never said
what they thought until I decided,” Jackson said. “They
didn’t say anything until after.”

So Jackson was left to weigh his options.

On the one hand, he could take his Big Ten title and three solid
years of collegiate play and jump to the NFL.

On the other hand, he could come back to Michigan, complete
school and finish what he started in his first two years at
cornerback, while trying to lead the Wolverines back to the Rose
Bowl.

To the delight of the Michigan program, Jackson told the NFL to
wait.

“I wanted to graduate,” Jackson said. “And I
had to play corner again.

“I needed one more year to really mature.”

 

The Corner is Back

 

So we come now to the culmination of Jackson’s Michigan
career. The cornerback-turned-safety-turned-cornerback will get one
last shot at doing all the things he believes he — and the
team — are capable of.

That means getting Michigan another Big Ten title and another
crack at the Rose Bowl or another BCS game. And it means proving
that he is, indeed, one of the best cornerbacks that college
football has to offer.

And so far, well …

“He’s back,” safety Ernest Shazor said.
“He got his swagger right back, it didn’t take him that
long. He’s back to being a lock-down corner again.”

If Jackson has indeed found his comfort zone at cornerback
again, that means bad news for the Wolverines’ opponents.

“I hope he’s better than sophomore form because
he’s a senior now,” Michigan defensive coordinator Jim
Herrmann said. “I believe he’s going to be a better
overall player anyway, just because he’s more experienced and
understands what it takes to work hard and develop.

“The great thing about him is that he’s a competitor
and he’s tough.”

Fellow senior Markus Curry has also noticed Jackson’s fire
being rekindled. Curry, the Wolverines’ other starting
cornerback, is the player charged with the challenge of lining up
on the opposite side of the field as Jackson — thereby seeing
most of the opposition’s passes come his way as quarterbacks
avoid Jackson.

“Marlin’s a competitive athlete — he’s a
pure athlete and he’s going to continue to be an
athlete,” Curry said. “I’m glad to have him on
the other side of the field. I have full confidence in him like he
has in me.”

Still, while it’s nice to hear from everyone else that
Jackson is ready to excel at cornerback again, it’s another
thing to hear it from Jackson himself.

“I’m comfortable back at corner,” Jackson
said. “I was still adjusting in the spring, but, after the
spring, (secondary coach Ron) English called me into his office and
told me what I needed to work on.

“That helped me get back to feeling real, real good at
corner.”

Saturday’s 43-10 victory over Miami (Ohio) marked
Jackson’s return to cornerback. And it turned out to be a
bittersweet moment. Jackson looked as good as ever early on in the
contest, buzzing around the field and recording three tackles in
the first 20 minutes.

But, during a play in the second quarter, Jackson dinged up his
shoulder and didn’t see the field again.

Jackson claims the injury will not hold him out of
Michigan’s game against Notre Dame this week, but it meant a
frustrating end to what could have been a triumphant day.

“I was feeling good about the whole day,” said
Jackson after the win. “Everything was real clear about how
it was going to go down, but I ended up hurting my shoulder.

“I played well when I was out there.”

 

Nothing short of greatness

 

There’s no reason not to think that this Michigan defense
could be one of the best in a long time — see the seven
turnovers the Wolverines forced against Miami. And there’s no
reason not to believe that Jackson, if he stays healthy, could turn
in his finest year yet as a Wolverine.

The senior is anxious to show everyone that he’s still
capable of being an All-American again, to prove that there
isn’t a team in the country that would want to throw a pass
in his direction.

Last season is something that Marlin Jackson would rather
forget.

But this year could be something to remember.

“I wouldn’t have come back,” Jackson said,
“if I felt I wouldn’t be able to make an impact for
this defense and help this team win a championship.”

 

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