Tennessee football: Titans drafting Theo Jackson is NFL’s best never-give-up story

It’s really hard to not feel good for Theo Jackson if anybody knows his story. He spent four years as a team player for Tennessee football, doing whatever was asked of him without getting a chance to be a full-time starter. Then he emerged his final year in Josh Heupel’s system.

Even with that production, though, he didn’t receive an NFL combine invite. As a result, he had to make the most of his Pro Day and the East-West Shrine Bowl to add value along with his production in college to NFL scouts.

It worked. Jackson became Tennessee football’s fifth player taken in the 2022 NFL Draft. The Tennessee Titans took the versatile defensive back in the sixth round with the 204th overall pick. Since he’s from Nashville, Tenn., he’s staying home.

A 2017 commitment to Butch Jones, Jackson initially planned to play safety in Bob Shoop’s nickel-heavy 4-3 base defense. Indeed, he saw action in all 11 games, and his future was bright. However, then Jones was fired.

Pruitt came in and installed a 3-4, moving Jackson over to nickel. He had to back up Baylen Buchanan and Shawn Shamburger the next two years, spending time as a utility defensive back, filling in wherever an injury existed in the starting rotation.

In 2020, Jackson was supposed to be a senior, and he was expected to back up Shamburger. However, Shamburger never got things going, and Jackson became the main starter. However, other underlying issues with Tennessee football made the year disastrous anyway.

Enter Heupel, Tim Banks and a return to the scheme Shoop ran. Jackson was finally given a full-time starting role, this time at nickel. All he did was become an All-SEC defensive back, leading the team with 11 pass deflections and registering nine tackles for a loss, a pick-six, one and a half sacks and 78 overall tackles, 37 of which were solo.

That was a story of perseverance and staying the course, and Jackson didn’t even let not being invited to the combine phase him. He used his pro day and other avenues to showcase his abilities, which showed that at 6’1″ 198 pounds, he ran a 4.46 40 and had a 37-inch vertical, according to draft scout.

Now, he’s on an NFL roster and will have a chance to prove himself. Given his versatile experience, he would be a valuable utility defensive back to play either safety or nickel for any team that lands him. It’s likely he won’t be a straight-up starter, but he can be a rotational guy to fill in where there is an inevitable key injury.

Losing Dane Cruikshank to the Chicago Bears means the Titans already have a specific role for Jackson. Sure, they took Auburn Tigers cornerback Roger McCreary to help fill that void, but McCreary is expected to immediately be a full-time starter at corner. Jackson is expected to fill a different role.

Considering the fact that those are the only two defensive backs the Titans have taken in this draft, Jackson is in a great situation. Playing in front of his hometown crowd only adds to the positives for the former Tennessee football nickel.