INDIANAPOLIS — For the past year, CB Asa "Ace" Jackson has been trying to escape a certain question involving penguins. On his player profile page at Cal Poly, it says that he "nurses abandoned and injured penguins back to health through Arctic ASPCA."
To set the record straight, Jackson has never worked with penguins. And he probably doesn't have a stepsister named Evan either.
"I wish it was true but I actually just made that up," Jackson said. "Completely made up, fabricated. I'm sorry for anybody out there that likes penguins, but yeah, no, it was just a complete joke."
After watching his senior teammates make up little things and put them in their player profile pages when he was a freshman, Jackson decided to insert the little bit about penguins into his player profile page. When asked about it at the NFL Scouting Combine, Jackson burst into laughter.
"I didn't realize it was going to stick like this," Jackson said. "People have been asking me about this for the past year. It's turned into a pretty funny joke. I don't work with penguins but maybe I will in the future just because it's been sticking so well."
While his work with penguins was a simple joke that he slipped past a media guy that he knew wasn't really paying attention to the reports he was supposed to post online, it wasn't the first time that Jackson has pulled a fast one.
His rise as a cornerback also came out of nowhere, after receiving very few offers out of high school. Jackson actually received greater attention as a track athlete than as a football player. Notre Dame and Georgetown both wanted him to run track for them. Few schools, on the other hand, were willing to expend a scholarship for football.
He momentarily thought about accepting his track scholarship and then walking on to the football team at Notre Dame, but former Fighting Irish coach Charlie Weis didn't let his football players run track.
Jackson could have gone to South Bend, anyway, under the presumption that he would run track, and then abandon the track team for the football team once he was there, but he didn't think that would be right. Besides, he wanted to go somewhere that appreciated his talents.
"I didn't feel right about accepting a track scholarship, then walking on to the football team, which I was pretty much confident that I could do and then having to quit track and just taking that spot from somebody else who might have really needed that scholarship," Jackson said. "I also wanted to go somewhere where I was wanted and Cal Poly showed they really wanted me."
Forty-three starts later, Jackson has carved a permanent legacy in the state of California, literally. On Jan. 15, Jackson was named to the All-Time Great West Conference football team, an honor he still can barely comprehend.
"It's a huge honor," Jackson said. "It really means a lot that the people would regard my skills highly enough to put me on the All-Time Great West list. It really is kind of hard to express it in even words how much that means to me."
As for the 43 starts (in 43 games played), that's a privilege in itself, according to Jackson.
"It was surreal almost," Jackson said. "I started every game since I've been there and when I came in, I thought I was going to be playing running back to be honest and then they needed help in the secondary, and I said, 'yeah, I played some cornerback in high school,' and it just ended up working out beautifully for me. I wouldn't trade the experience for the world."
The standout high school quarterback, who said he would usually just take off and run, passing the ball only about 15 times per game, said that he didn't mind the switch from running back to cornerback as long as it kept him on the field.
"You know what? I'm one of those dudes where as long as I'm on the field, I don't really care where I play," Jackson said. "Other than punter and kicker, as long as I'm on the field, I don't have a problem with it at all. I really like the defensive side of the ball since I'm doing the hitting rather than getting hit so that worked out nicely for me.
In fact, he said that standing under center helped him navigate his way around the backfield. He noted that his time at quarterback gave him unusual insight into a quarterback's next move.
"As much as you have to be an athletic player (at cornerback), you have to be a smart player," Jackson said. "And I think that dudes that come from playing quarterback in high school, you have to see the game a little bit differently, so being able to take that knowledge that you have from a quarterback to then being able to read quarterbacks, their drops, their releases, the way that they throw balls, the way they throw different routes, it plays right into something that you can do well and helps you out at corner a lot."
Jackson said that he is plenty happy at cornerback, particularly when it comes to one-on-one matchups with wide receivers.
"It's a real tactical position, which I think really complements some of the strengths I have as a player," Jackson said. "That's something that I kind of liked, being able to play out there against the receiver. I want the coach to put me on that guy and let's go at it all day. That's something I really enjoy."
At a little less than 5-foot-10, Jackson is somewhat undersized for his position. His wingspan is particularly small, with an arm length of just 28 5/8 inches, but he doesn't let that faze him.
"There's nothing I can do about my wingspan and my hands," Jackson said. "I try to overcome it just with my athleticism, number one, and also through my jumping abiity and also great coverage. If you're fast in and out of your breaks, it doesn't matter how long your arms are. If you catch the ball right in here and take it in for six, it doesn't matter how long my arms are."
While most scouts might see his size as his biggest weakness, Jackson has highlighted a different weakness that he believes he could easily correct with a little practice.
"I can be a little stout at tackling in the open field. A couple of times, I can remember missing tackles that I wouldn't want to miss," Jackson said. "By the end of the year, our practices were pretty lax. We didn't do a lot of tackling. I wish we could have done a little more. I got a little lax in that area. It's something I feel I'm good at and I just need to brush up on it a little more."
For Jackson, he said better tackling will come with better control and better decisions, particularly as it relates to when he ought to lower his shoulders and deliver a big hit.
"Some of it is just wanting to be physical and I'm a player that even though I'm small, I'm an aggressive player sometimes," Jackson said. "That has its good sides and it has its bad sides and sometimes I'll be overaggressive trying to take somebody out and I'll end up missing. Just being able to rein it in, being a mature player knowing when you can go for the kill shot, as they say, and when I just need to go for that solid open-field tackle."
A speedster who once timed in at 4.48 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and is now aiming for a high 4.3 or low 4.4 at the Combine, Jackson could be a weapon on an NFL special-teams unit as well. Even without the obligatory touchdown that usually inflates a player's return numbers, Jackson gained 18 yards on punt returns and 25.8 yards on kickoff returns during his senior season at Cal Poly.
Jackson said that returning kicks almost makes him feel like he's back at Christian Brothers High School in Sacramento.
"As much as I do enjoy playing defense, you don't get your hands on the ball," Jackson said. "You get it maybe seven or eight times a year, at least for me. Getting the ball back in my hands on returns is a bit of a throwback to high school."
And as much as returning kicks reminds him of the previous level at which he played, it might be one of his best shots at reaching the next level as well.