It took one snap against Grambling for Tulane fifth-year senior linebacker Luke Jackson to morph from a feel-good off-the-field story to a real factor on it.
Nearly four years after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, he started for the first time in his career and pressured quarterback DeVante Kincade into a desperate dump-off right away.
Jackson has not only beaten cancer. He’s ready to beat opponents on a weekly basis.
“It was nice to be recognized for making it through cancer, but it’s also nice to have people appreciate me playing football, too,” he said. “I wouldn’t say I’m excelling yet, but I’m getting to where I can make some plays and be a big part of the team.”
Just before halftime, Jackson snuffed out Grambling’s initial scoring threat. With the Tigers at the Tulane 40, he sacked Kincade for a 13-yard loss, taking him to the ground after he tried to spin around his outside contain.
Grambling let the clock run out after the next play as the Green Wave preserved its 24-0 lead in what became a 43-14 rout.
Jackson, who tied his career best with four tackles, moved up to first-team weakside linebacker when projected starter Zach Harris was sidelined by a knee injury early in preseason camp. Harris returned last week, but Jackson had done enough to hold on to the spot.
“He’s real smart, and he gives us a little size (at 6-foot-3, 235 pounds),” Tulane coach Willie Fritz said. “The wheels are turning in his head all the time. He’s a calming influence. He doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t ever get too high or too low.”
Why would he after the setback he experienced as a freshman?
Diagnosed in November 2013, Jackson finished chemotherapy treatment the next February, had surgery to remove lymph nodes in his abdomen that April and returned to the team cancer-free — but 30 pounds lighter — in the fall of 2014.
It’s been a long road back. Originally a defensive end, he did not play at all in 2014 and had three tackles in 2015.
He started to emerge as a contributor under Fritz’s staff in the second half of 2016 after moving to linebacker. He made 17 of his 20 tackles in the last six games, catching the eye of the coaches.
“We actually created a personnel package called ‘Luke’ that had him playing linebacker in that specific package,” linebackers coach Michael Mutz said. “His football intelligence is off the chart. He makes very few mistakes. He’s so smart, and when you have a smart guy, you can do a lot of different things.”
Jackson showed his smarts in school, too, getting a finance degree this spring. He is taking night classes in homeland security for his graduate program this semester, freeing up his days for football.
The idea of becoming a starter appeared to be a pipe dream in 2014, but he has turned it into reality. The move to linebacker made sense, and it was just a matter of learning the position.
“I don’t think I was ever uncomfortable, but there was definitely some adjusting,” he said. “I took it as the best spot for me in our defense. I wasn’t big enough for defensive end anymore. I can use my speed and be physical.”
A humble perfectionist, he pointed out two missed tackles on pass plays against Grambling. He is not into self-praise, but he cannot hide his pure joy at playing a pivotal role after such a long wait.
The last time he was this important was his senior year at St. Charles Catholic, when he was a first-team all-state selection.
“I knew he was capable of making those plays,” said starting middle linebacker Rae Juan Marbley, who competed against him in high school at nearby Destrehan. “So for him to finally have his shot and go out and show what he was capable of, I’m really proud of Luke.”
Jackson won’t approach the numbers of his uncle, David Jackson, who made a team-best 119 tackles for Tulane in 1982, but he won’t fade into the background, either.
A healthy Harris just gives the coaches three inside linebackers they trust immensely. Plus, Jackson is capable of playing on the line of scrimmage in pass-rushing situations.
He has gone from no role to a huge one as Tulane heads into Saturday's American Athletic Conference opener at Navy.
“He’s so versatile because he can play three different spots,” Mutz said. Basically, he’s invaluable.”