Ex-Natchez star starts for WSU in Apple Cup

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 5, 2003

PULLMAN, Wash. &045; There were just some things Don Jackson had to learn when he first arrived on the Washington State campus.

For a guy born and raised in Natchez, he had to pick up on the basic things folks in the Pacific Northwest take for granted. For starters, it’s not all of Washington that gets rained on every day &045; it’s just the western side near the Pacific Ocean.

Football in that part of the country often has sound passing attacks, and it’s something that Jackson had to get accustomed to since he’s starting at middle linebacker.

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But it’s not like the 2000 Natchez High graduate couldn’t return the favor. When Mike Price, his head coach last year in his first season at WSU, left and was fired at Alabama for detrimental conduct involving an incident in a strip club before he ever coached a game, Jackson had a feeling.

In fact, he said he told Price before he left for the South what he was in for.

That’s just what football players from the South know.

&uot;At first he told the whole team he was leaving,&uot; said Jackson, a senior after transferring in from Grossmont (Calif.) College. &uot;I told him, ‘Man, I don’t think you’re going to make it down there.’ The coaching style is different. Up here, the coaches are like, ‘Hi, how are you doing?’ Down there you’ve got to be mean. People aren’t going to respect you if you’re always nice. He didn’t understand all that.

&uot;I’ve seen a lot of coaches in strip clubs. That’s not a reason (for his firing). They used that.&uot;

But as part of a Washington State team that’s ranked eighth in both polls, Jackson is still learning what it’s like to be part of a squad that’s got huge bowl implications heading into today’s road game against in-state rival Washington.

At one time the Cougars were high in the BCS standings, but all that was derailed in a loss to USC. The Cougars, no doubt, will be heading somewhere, and Jackson has learned another thing &045; please, not the Rose Bowl.

&uot;Everybody is talking about the Rose Bowl,&uot; he said after the team’s 34-13 loss to Oklahoma last year. &uot;I don’t like the Rose Bowl, to be honest. They put you in Hollywood, the richest part of L.A. They give you $400-$500, which is nothing in Hollywood. It’s crazy.&uot;

But for the

most part, Jackson has learned the Cougars’ defensive system and is becoming a strong part of the team’s linebacking corps after missing most of last year with an injury. He is fresh off a pair of 11-tackles games against USC and Arizona State and is now tied for the team lead in tackles with 76.

&uot;He’s playing really, really well,&uot; WSU linebackers coach Leon Burtnett said. &uot;He’s probably been the biggest surprise on defense. We were worried about the linebacker position coming in. With Don out nearly all last year, that was a real concern. Don has really played well. I’d say he’s one of the top linebackers in the Pac-10.&uot;

Jackson, Burtnett noted, has made a bruising tandem with sophomore Will Derting at outside linebacker. Right now Both are in their first year as regular starters, and Derting &045; just a sophomore &045; is third in tackles but is second in tackles for loss with 11.

But this year is different for Jackson, mostly because he’s in the groove and playing regularly.

&uot;Last year it was just all about learning the plays,&uot; Jackson said. &uot;This year I know everything. Last year I came in right before the season. I was playing outside and learning the outside plays. A week before the season started they switched me, and I had to forget everything I learned. That was kind of hard.&uot;

Jackson and the Cougars have picked up quite a bit this season, and going into today’s game they’re the second-best defense in the Pac-10 in regards to points allowed (19.1). Jackson ranks 18th in the conference in tackles per game, but it’s the defense across the board that’s been a key for most of the year.

The Cougars, however, had their troubles against USC two weeks ago in a 43-16 loss, their only conference loss of the year. The Cougars (9-2) lost to Notre Dame Sept. 6, 29-26.

&uot;USC is a good team,&uot; Jackson said. &uot;They had a lot of weapons. We thought we went into that game well-prepared, but they had a lot of weapons. We have a pretty good defense. I like our defense because we’ve got some good athletes, but it’s not just as players. We play well as a defensive unit.&uot;

Jackson and the defense could finish off a stellar season today with a win over the Huskies in the annual Apple Cup contest. The Huskies (3-4, 5-6) haven’t had the same amount of success this year, a season that started off rocky with the departure of head coach Rick Neuheisel.

Regardless, today’s matchup in Seattle is for bragging rights, and the Cougars haven’t won the annual showdown since 1997.

Now he’s learning about the importance of this game, the Pacific Northwest version of the Egg Bowl, Iron Bowl or whatever other rivalry you can think of. It’s a big game now for Jackson, who at this time two years ago didn’t know the Apple Cup from a Dixie cup.

&uot;Donnie enjoys life,&uot; Burtnett said. &uot;We’ll all miss him when he’s gone.&uot;