- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Normal days are no longer normal for Bennett Jackson. He didn't have much choice in the matter, really. Not when Brian Kelly anointed him a captain last month, making the cornerback, and -- cosmetically speaking -- only the cornerback, in charge of a defense that has six other returning starters and two preseason All-Americans.
"I can't go out there and just get by, basically," Jackson said. "When you're a captain the team looks on you to make plays, and I look at myself as a playmaker. So I want to go out there, I want to make plays and I want to be able to energize the defense. So when we're having a basic day, I feel like the coaches and the team look upon me to boost everybody's energy and just get things going in the right direction."
Last Saturday's game at Purdue could fall into the "basic" category. A Boilermakers offense that managed just two touchdowns through its first two games had already scored two on Notre Dame, and was on its way to three. But up seven early in the final frame, Jackson jumped a crossing pattern and picked off Rob Henry, returning it 34 yards for a back-breaking score.
This, inevitably, eased a bit of the transition for Jackson. The senior who spared few unspoken thoughts to begin with but can now sense a certain level of validation that just might not have clicked naturally upon donning the weight of a jersey with a "C" on his chest for the first time.
"I think it helps a lot," Jackson said of his play Saturday. "It's just momentum. It just builds confidence as a unit that we can make those plays, and I feel like everybody on defense has a sense that we have big-play ability. It just gives people extra motivation and that extra little bit of whatever they need to push forward."
For Jackson, that meant feet big enough to fill the shoes he was handed down. Whereas last year's defensive captains, Manti Te'o and Kapron Lewis-Moore, entered 2012 as three-year starters, Jackson was an offensive convert and first-year starter on a re-tooling secondary, albeit one who had a knack for the saying the right thing at the right time.
This time around, Kelly saw a player who was harder on himself in light of being named the lone defensive captain.
"I've tried to let him grow into the position," Kelly said. "It has a tendency to put a little bit more pressure on you. You don't want to let anybody down."
Speaking up was never a problem for Jackson. Fellow corner KeiVarae Russell joked that Jackson has been so vocal at times that teammates have had to stop just short of telling him to shut up before realizing, as Russell put it, No, never mind. He's right.
"You want to get mad at him, but he is a leader, and people look," Russell said. "Our whole team, no matter if they're older than him or younger than him, we look up to him. And when he says something we usually do it because he put in the work to where he's at now. He's at a great position where he set himself up to do great things, so why not follow someone like that?"
Jackson has learned to better pick and choose his spots. He has understood the more critical critiques from the staff, and he regularly sits down to chat with Kelly, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and position coach Kerry Cooks.
He realized that there is a different standard, and he has gone about living it out in his senior year.
"When you have the 'C' on your chest, you just have to live a first-class life on and off the field, in the classroom," Jackson said. "You've got to [give] basically just the strongest support you can to your teammates. So it's something I wouldn't necessarily say I struggled with, but it's something that I had to get a little more used to."