December 12, 2017 11:17:10 PM
STARKVILLE -- The turning point for Jesse Jackson came as the Kentucky game drew to a close.
At the time, Mississippi State's football team still had the two senior wide receivers it had planned on leaning on all season long, Donald Gray and Gabe Myles, and it used them both accordingly. The two combined for 10 catches for 81 yards. Jackson was a bigger part of the offense that day than he had been in the past in catching more than two passes in a game for the first time this season, catching three for 24.
That was also the last game Myles would play before the regular season finale. Gray would go down with a season-ending injury after just one catch in the next week's game against Texas A&M. From then on, the veterans made it clear: Jackson was the man now.
"We always joked with him saying, 'These are your boys now,'" Myles said. "To me, he's really stepped up."
The injuries and other limitations at the wide receiver position did hurt the No. 24 MSU (8-4) passing game to the tune of a next-to-last place finish in the Southeastern Conference in passing offense, but the opportunity was more than enough for Jackson. Despite just one catch per game in his first three games, Jackson enters the TaxSlayer Bowl against Louisville (8-4) as MSU's leading receiver with 24 catches for 238 yards. The Bulldogs meets the Cardinals at 11 a.m. Dec. 30 (ESPN) at EverBank Field.
"He's been great. The guy works really hard and he deserves it," quarterback Keytaon Thompson said. "He's been working hard all this time and when the opportunity presented itself, he took advantage of it and made some big-time plays for us."
When it was only Myles out with Gray still in the fold, but as Gray went out, Jackson was called upon to do more.
"He doesn't just play one position," Myles said. "That's one thing we share: we can play any position in that offense, receiver-wise. He's done that. Every time someone went down, he came up; he'll go execute, he'll go make a play when we need it."
Jackson started the season as Myles' backup at the Z position and filled in there at times, but as the season wore on, that versatility was called upon. Jackson was put into the H position which has a very specific role in the Dan Mullen offense, as Jackson's numbers show.
With only one reception of longer than 17 yards, Jackson is far from a traditional downfield threat, but with one catch of at least 15 yards or more in half of his games, Jackson is not the prototypical possession receiver. Jackson sees that in between role as the perfect explanation for the H position he played some in the final stretch of the regular season.
"In the past I was used more as a blocker and more of a downfield threat. This year kind of caught me off-guard: I was in the slot, running bubbles, getting in some open field which I really haven't done in the past," Jackson said. "The H was new for me. It was good, it was different.
"When the ball is thrown to you, the game is on the line. That's how I felt in the H."
That mind-set required a new approach throughout the week, which Jackson adopted midseason. He said he took game-planning more seriously as his role grew, spending more time in the film room and evaluating other things to help his teammates.
While he's been doing it, he's had the support of Myles. Myles went with an approach of constant coaching and encouragement, knowing the challenges that were ahead of Jackson. He's worn the role with ease -- to the point that, as he's become MSU's leading receiver, he hasn't noticed much of a difference.
"I don't think anything has really changed beside everybody chipping in to do their part," Jackson said. "We have a lot of young receivers that can bring a lot to the table for us."
Follow Dispatch sports writer Brett Hudson on Twitter @Brett_Hudson
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