CRUSADERS IN THE PROS: 2016 Stagg Bowl MVP Blake Jackson has become accustomed to change as a pro

WINNIPEG- It would be an understatement to say that Blake Jackson is unfazed by change. In fact, the former UMHB quarterback embraces it. 

That is not to say he doesn’t hope to one day soon become a consistent contributor over multiple years for one team. Since graduating in 2016, the receiver has taken snaps in Calgary, Cleveland, Houston, and now Winnepeg. Don’t forget the stint in The Spring League either. But Jackson is a prime example of making due with the hand he has been dealt. And he has become successful doing it.

Exactly a decade ago, Jackson was the fifth-ranked dual threat quarterback in the state of Texas, having enjoyed a successful high school career at Houston’s Dobie High School.

As a talented signal caller, he attended several large-scale camps, hoping to catch the eye of Div. I programs.

“It was like a full circle moment when I went to UMHB, because I was at a Texas Tech camp in high school and UMHB was there,” Jackson said. “I did really well and a coach from UMHB, I can’t remember his name as he wasn’t there when I ended up transferring, said, ‘Hey, if you ever want to come to UMHB, the offer is always on the table.'”

But he was not interested in UMHB, at least not then. He instead took his talents to Southeast Missouri State, a Div. I FCS Program that had reached the second round of the FCS Playoffs in 2010.

As a true freshman in 2012, things looked good for Jackson’s future. He played in six games, throwing for 39 yards and a touchdown while also adding 119 rushing yards. However, he was forced to sit out his sophomore year as a redshirt, and soon began looking for a new destination.

“When I was going through the process of transferring, I wanted to play right away,” Jackson remembers. “I didn’t want to have to sit a year, because I had just come off a redshirt [year]. The rules were, for NCAA, if you transferred from D1 to D1, you have to sit a year. The only way you could play right away is if you went D2 or D3.”

As Jackson soon found out, UMHB was a program of its word. The offer had never left the table.

“I was looking at D1 schools, and then I went to UMHB,” Jackson recalls. “When I say out of all the schools I went and visited, the positive energy I was getting from not only the coaches [at UMHB] but just being there and walking throughout the stadium, I felt at home.”

He said that feeling never left him, but his road to earning the 2016 Stagg Bowl MVP was bumpy at times. The talented quarterback soon realized he was not the only standout under center. For the next two years, he split playing time with Zach Anderson, appearing in 12 games in each season, though he started just one over the course of those 24 contests.

While that time was frustrating for a competitor like Jackson, he can now see the value in his experience. He was taught patience by head coach Pete Fredenburg and the sport of football.

“When I got to UMHB, I went through the whole process of having to split time at quarterback,” Jackson said. “That was very frustrating at first, but I give Kudos to Coach Fred for helping me to grow in that aspect, not only as a football player but as a man. Patience is everything. Nothing can ever be handed to you.”

Upon arrival at UMHB, Jackson’s expectations of the talent on the team were shattered.

“I’m not going to lie, I was humbled pretty early,” Jackson said. “When I transferred in, I thought, ‘Oh, I’m a D1 guy who is going to this D3 school, these guys can’t hang with me.’ I got there and I started seeing the players they had at all the positions, and I was like, ‘Man, these guys are easily better than the guys that I just left at a D1.'”

When Jackson finally got his chance to shine at the full-time starter, he did not disappoint. Posting a completion rate of 66 percent through 15 games in 2016, he threw for 35 touchdowns and 3282 yards. An agile runner, he picked up an additional 1026 yards on the ground with 11 touchdowns.

In the Stagg Bowl alone, a 10-7 win over Wisconsin-Oshkosh that was vacated by the NCAA, Jackson was 16-for-27 passing, with a team-high 124 rushing yards and one touchdown.

“It was amazing,” Jackson said of winning the program’s first national championship. “That made lifetime memories. Coming out of the offseason, everyone at every position had the same goal. The team commraderie was crazy. That was the best team commraderie that I’ve ever experienced. Everyone looked out for each other, everyone held each other accountable.

“When we finally got to where we had wanted to go, we just said, ‘We have to finish it.’ When you watch that game, it goes to show you how strong all aspects of that were.”

Following the 2016 campaign, Jackson set his sights on a new goal: playing at the professional level.

But as he worked to achieve that, another change came up in his career. Based on his agility, speed and overall athleticism, his agent and scouts agreed that switching to wide receiver would improve his chances of getting on with an NFL team.

“I started my pro day training right after the season, and got an agent immediately,” Jackson remembers. “He started reaching out to NFL scouts and CFL scouts and they suggested that I transition to receiver because they could tell from my film that I could run the ball really well, I was athletic and my test numbers were good.

“I literally got right to [receiver training]. I studied a bunch of film and highlights. I watched guys who had played quarterback in college and then were successful in the NFL at receiver. I worked on it literally day in, day out.”

However, “your film is your resume” in the NFL according to Jackson, which meant that he was fighting an uphill battle as he had never played receiver in high school or college. Yet, at a Canadian Football League camp early in the summer of 2018, he did catch the eye of the Calagary Stampeders and inked his first pro contract soon after.

“The way I got to Calgary was I went to a CFL camp,” Jackson said. “They have them in different places in U.S. during the offseason. I pulled up to one and balled out, and they offered me a contract right after the camp was over. That was after my pro day at Baylor. I had some interest from NFL teams at that time, but they were looking at me as a D3 quarterback who was transitioning to receiver, who didn’t have any film at receiver.”

He spent the 2018 training camp with Calgary and by the end of the summer, was on his way to training camp with the Cleveland Browns.

“I was facing the odds when I got to Cleveland at first,” Jackson said. “I hadn’t gotten there during OTAs, which was when you learn the offense and routes and those kinds of things. I wasn’t there for that. I got there literally a day before training camp. So they gave me the playbook and I went over it like crazy, and did everything I could during training camp to get eyes on me.”

In perhaps the most memorable moment of his season spent on Cleveland’s roster, Jackson caught his first NFL touchdown in a 35-17 preseason win over the Detroit Lions.

“I had to earn my playing time during the preseason,” Jackson recalls. “I was playing on special teams but wasn’t getting a lot of playing time on offense, until the last two games of the preseason. That [catch] was my first target, my first reception and it was a touchdown.”

He spent the majority of the 2018 season on Cleveland’s practice squad, but was briefly activated to the active roster on December 28, 2018. Following an injury in August of 2019, Jackson’s next opportunity to see the field came with the XFL, which was rebooted in the spring of 2020. COVID-19 unfortunately terminated the season, but he enjoyed his short time playing in his hometown with the Houston Roughnecks.

“The XFL was a lot of fun,” Jackson said. “They did a really good job of player engagement with fans and bringing the fun back to the game. Being able to play for the Houston team, like 10 minutes from where I grew up, was crazy.”

Now, entering his second go-around in the CFL, Jackson is prepared to make an impact, and continue to represent UMHB at the pro level. He says there are things he took from his first experience in the CFL that he is working to apply heading into this season, which begins August 5. Playing with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, Jackson’s CFL regular season debut is set for 7:30 p.m. at home against Hamilton.

“I’ve been training since the XFL,” Jackson said. “I’ve been in offseason mode for nine months. So I’m just ready to get back on the field and put on for Winnipeg and UMHB and have fun.”

The Div. III level is often overlooked. But Jackson, along with several others, are slowly proving the doubters wrong. Currently in his fourth year as a pro, having appeared in three different leagues, he had some strong advice for the next generation of college players.

“Kids ask me, ‘What school did you go to?’,” Jackson said. “I tell them that I went UMHB. They know what UMHB is. I always get, ‘How did you make it to the pros then? Was it hard?’ I’m always like, ‘You can make it to the pros at any level as long as you sit there and speak it into existence and you have to work your tail off in order to get to that spot.

“You can’t just sit there and do the bare minimum. You have to go and earn it. It’s not given. There’s some people that the path might be easier for them, but you can’t look at other people’s paths. Don’t try to veer off and do what somebody else is doing. Stay true to your path.”

To read additional thoughts from our recent interview with Jackson, stay tuned for a short Q&A article set to come later this week.

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