Tarron Jackson's college career almost didn’t happen.
In 2008, when he was nine years old, Jackson lost his older brother Daron to leukemia. His brother was just 12.
“It was definitely tough,” Jackson said.
Somehow, though, Jackson found strength through that loss.
“Seeing him go through all the stuff that he went through, he was the guy that never complained," Jackson said. "He always had a smile on his face."
So he adopted his brother's mentality.
“I try not to complain and work as hard as I can,” Jackson said, adding that he’s “living to the standards that [Daron] set.”
Before his brother died, Jackson promised him that he would get back into football.
“I don’t like to go back on my promises,” he said.
It took some time, but Jackson finally became involved in organized football when he was a sophomore in high school. Once he got back into the sport, Jackson “fell in love with it.”
This past December, Jackson and his teammates had the opportunity to play in the 2020 Cure Bowl, a bowl game that is dedicated to helping raise funds for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
"For me, to get the opportunity to play in a bowl like this is great," Jackson said. "It has a little bit more meaning to me going through what I went through and seeing the impact that certain things have on kids. It's huge."
Jackson added that the Make-A-Wish foundation has a place in his heart after they gave the opportunity to Jackson's family to come to Orlando and see the sights, including Disney World.
"It was a blessing," Jackson said.
Almost eight years after he started working on fulfilling that promise to his late brother, Coastal Carolina’s all-time sack leader is preparing and hoping for something that many college football players dream of — hearing his name called at the 2021 NFL Draft.
“It’ll definitely be a blessing when it happens,” Jackson said. “It’s an opportunity that you have to take advantage of. That’s just the starting point. Wherever I do go, I know there’s going to be a lot of work to put in.”
Should he shine in the 2021 Reese’s Senior Bowl, Jackson is projected to be selected on the second day of the draft, which features the second and third rounds, according to a USA Today article published two days after Coastal’s loss to Liberty in the 2020 Cure Bowl
“A good performance there could land him squarely on the Day 2 radar,” the article said.
Jackson wasted no time in his preparations for the draft. Less than 24 hours after Coastal fell to Liberty in the Cure Bowl, the All-American defensive end declared for the draft. Just over a week later, Jackson signed with Michael Johnson Performance and made his way out to Texas to start training.
“Working out, come home, work out again, that’s pretty much all I’ve been doing right now,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s journey to the NFL Draft is one filled with adversity. He joined a Coastal Carolina team that was in the middle of transitioning to the FBS. In 2016, the program's final year in FCS, Jackson played in four games before an injury sidelined him. Despite getting hurt, Jackson was able to make a decent contribution to the defense, totaling 1.5 sacks in just four games.
While some teams have an easy transition from FCS to FBS, that was not the case for Coastal. In 2017, the program endured the worst season in its young history, finishing 3-9 and struggling through a nine-game losing streak.
“I am definitely not going to say that it was expected,” Jackson said. “We thought we was going to fair well in the Sun Belt. We had a lot of talent. Our eyes were opened to the strength of the Sun Belt.”
Joe Moglia returned as head coach for Coastal in 2018 after taking the 2017 season off for a medical sabbatical. While the program went off to a great start and came within one win of bowl eligibility, the team lost four straight games to fall to 5-7 on the year.
Jamey Chadwell would take over ahead of the 2019 season after Moglia officially stepped down as head coach. While there were some players who left the program for other ventures, others stayed, including Jackson.
Following a thrilling win over No. 8 BYU on Dec. 5, Chadwell became emotional when asked about his seniors.
"They're deserving of these opportunities they've been creating," he said in the post-game news conference, fighting back tears. "They came in when you're transitioning. A lot of challenges with that transition, lot of challenges coming into a really good league. They got beat up and told they were no good for a long time and it was a process. They could've easily left because that's what most people do."
Jackson committed to staying.
“I was never a guy that could just leave something,” he said. “I wanted to leave my legacy at Coastal.”
Jackson certainly left an imprint on the program. For the next two seasons, 2019 and 2020, Jackson would dominate any offensive line that stood in his way and struck fear in quarterbacks across the country. Despite the program missing out on a bowl game in 2019, Jackson was the star of the season, recording a program record 10.5 sacks in a single season. His record-breaking performance in 2019 also made him the all-time leading sack leader in school history with 18 sacks, surpassing Phillip Oboh’s record of 17 sacks from 2006-2009.
That domination carried over into Coastal’s historic 2020 season. So did his sack record. Jackson recorded 8.5 sacks in 2020, including three different occasions where he recorded two sacks or more.
Since Coastal officially joined the Sun Belt in 2017, his 1.5 sacks during the 2016 season do not count as a Sun Belt record. However, his 25 sacks throughout his career in the Sun belt puts Jackson at second all-time in Sun Belt history for career sacks.
Looking back at the 2020 season, Jackson said three moments stood out.
“The first one would have to be when we defeated Louisiana, especially because of the game last year [when Louisiana won 48-7], we came in wanting to win. They had the status of being ranked, which gave us a little extra motivation,” Jackson said. “The next one is definitely the App State game. They had been the team that had always been the top of the conference and we wanted to knock them off and definitely solidify that we were the best team in the conference this year.”
Jackson’s third choice was the instant classic between the Chants and BYU.
“For us to go into that game on such short notice and to take them on and compete with them guys and get a W, that is definitely one that I’ll always remember,” Jackson said.
With the Senior Bowl coming up this weekend, Jackson has been in Mobile, Alabama, for the past few days working with other Senior Bowl participants. He’s been catching the eyes of some NFL scouts NFL draft experts and is becoming one of the most talked about participants leading up to Saturday’s game at 2:30 p.m. on the NFL Network.
Jackson isn’t letting the talk get to him and is focusing on improving his game.
“I kind of block all that stuff out,” Jackson said. “A lot of stuff still isn’t concrete. My biggest weakness as a player is my consistency with my steps when it comes to the run. I know my pass rush has to get better.
As Jackson prepared for Saturday's Senior Bowl, he thought about what his brother would be telling him.
“I would think he would just tell me just enjoy the game and never lose your love for it,” Jackson said. “He would just be happy that I’m happy and being successful in whatever I’m doing right now.”