By David Coulson
College Sports Journal
BOONE, N.C. — Sometimes the best decisions are the ones you don’t make.
Just ask Appalachian State sophomore quarterback Jamal Jackson.
The lanky, 6-3, 200-pound Atlanta native will be starting his third college football game Saturday at ASU’s Kidd Brewer Stadium, when the No. 5-ranked Mountaineers face top-ranked Georgia Southern in a battle of arch-rivals and Southern Conference foes Saturday at 3 p.m.
But as the 2010 season ended with No. 1-seeded Appalachian State dropping a 42-24 decision to 2009 national champion Villanova in the Football Championship Subdivision quarterfinals, Jackson might have been one of the most frustrated players on the Mountaineer roster.
Jackson watched from the sidelines that afternoon as then-junior DeAndre Presley directed the ASU attack.
Having played little as a redshirt freshman, Jackson could only foresee another year on the bench behind Presley, a player who was named to several All-American teams and finished third in the country in the Walter Payton Award balloting.
That’s where a chance meeting could have changed the destinies of Appalachian State and Villanova football.
Villanova’s veteran coach Andy Talley remembered leaving the field that day with much fondness.
“We’ve never been treated better anywhere we’ve been,” said Talley. “All of their fans were so nice to us. They were telling us to go on and win the national championship.”
Talley remembered one fan in particular. It happened to be Jackson’s mother, Kathy Londry, and she wanted to speak to Talley about the possibility of the young quarterback transferring to Villanova.
She told Talley that her son was unhappy with his playing time at Appalachian State and was considering other opportunities.
‘Why would he want to do that?” Talley asked sternly. “Why would anyone want to leave a program like the one at Appalachian State?”
Talley quickly told Mrs. Londry that Villanova didn’t have room for another quarterback with freshman Dustin Thomas expected to start the 2011 season after a redshirt year and with a pair of talented recruits, Chris Polony andJohn Robertson having already made commitments.
“I asked her for Jamal’s phone number and told her that I would call him after our season was over,” Talley said.
A week later, Villanova’s title run was ended by eventual national champion Eastern Washington, 41-31, on EWU’s Tabasco-colored, Woodward Stadium turf in the FCS semifinals.
When Talley finally talked to Jackson, the cagey coach read the youngster the riot act.
“I told him that even if he didn’t play much as a sophomore, he was probably going to be a starter for the next two years and that there were no guarantees his situation would be better transferring somewhere else,” Talley said.
Talley gave Jackson the following advice:
Set up a meeting with ASU coach Jerry Moore and quarterback coach Brad Glenn and talk out your concerns.
While Talley talked Jackson out of transferring, it seems unlikely now that the talented passer ever followed through on the second part of Talley’s advice.
Several sources said this week that no one on the ASU coaching staff was aware of Jackson’s transfer plans and Jackson denied he ever considered leaving.
“When I committed here, that was where I was making my commitment,” Jackson said.
Of course, Jackson wouldn’t have been the first player to find his heart torn by his original decision.
“Where playing time is concerned, there are always a lot of players who are unhappy and think they should be playing more,” said ASU running backs coach Chris Moore. “Even if Jamal had asked for a release, I doubt Coach (Chris’ father Jerry) would have given it to him.”
When Armanti Edwards left the Appalachian State campus after completing one of the most incredible careers in college football history, many program insiders thought Jackson would emerge as the two-time Payton Award-winner’s successor.
Presley had made a pair of starts when Edwards was rested with injuries, but after a disastrous performance in the 2009 season opener at East Carolina, Presley lost his backup role to Travaris Cadet, who nearly led the Mountaineers to a second-half comeback.
In order to utilize Presley’s physical skills, he was switched to wide receiver.
“Our thought was that, if we needed to bring someone in to replace Armanti (in 2009), that the ability Travaris had to run the ball gave us the best chance to win,” said Glenn. “We knew DeAndre wasn’t going to get much of a chance to play, so we felt like moving him to receiver gave us the chance to use his talent and keep him involved.”
But Cadet was moved to running back last season to fill the void left by the graduation loss of Devon Moore and Presley asked for another chance to play quarterback.
“You couldn’t have asked for someone to come in better prepared than DeAndre did,” Glenn said.
Presley and Jackson turned in a spirited competition for the starting quarterback job through spring practice in 2010 and Presley won the job in August’s training camp before guiding the Mountaineers to a share of a record-tying sixth consecutive Southern Conference title.
Presley tore through the schedule with uncanny efficiency until a serious of nagging injuries began to take their toll as the season wore on. He finished with 2,631 yards passing, 1,039 yards rushing and was responsible for 35 touchdowns.
But when he returned for his senior campaign, Presley seemed to lack the confidence he had carried during the 2010 season and his decision making as became suspect.
On his second snap of the year at Virginia Tech, Presley mishandled a handoff to Cadet for a fumble, starting the Mountaineers on their way to a crushing 66-13 loss. He also tossed a pair of interceptions later in the game.
One of the few highlights of that game was the play of Jackson in the second half.
Jackson fired a 46-yard touchdown pass to Brian Quick on his first possession running the attack and completed a seven-play, 80-yard drive later with a 15-yard scoring burst after a 41-yard pass connection with Tony Washington.
A shadow of doubt was cast, even as ASU was rolling to wins over North Carolina A&T, Savannah State. Poor offensive performances against Chattanooga and Wofford and a shoulder injury for Presley convinced the coaching staff that it was time for a change.
“We thought we would throw Jamal in there and see what he could do,” said Glenn.
After a bye week, Jackson took the reins of the spread offense on the road against The Citadel and promptly completed his first 15 passes. He finished 21-of-27 for 237 yards and three TDs and added 40 yards rushing as the Mountaineers won 49-42.
“Going into the first game, my confidence was high,” said Jackson. As a quarterback, you have to be confident.”
Last week at home against Samford, Jackson continued to play with confidence, as he passed for 290 yards and two touchdowns, completing 19-of-30 passes, and added 40 yards rushing and another score on the ground in a 35-17 victory.
Jackson proved to be ready for the challenges of being a starter.
“Losing the competition for the quarterback job last season gave me more motivation to improve,” said Jackson. “It taught me that there was stuff I needed to work on. I prepared myself every day.”
It appears that his perseverance and work ethic have paid off.
“He is seeing things well and operating the offense with a lot of poise,” said Glenn.
Jackson’s success isn’t a surprise to those who have watched his development.
Jackson’s father Greg was an All-American defensive back at LSU and played 12 years in the NFL with the New York Giants, Philadelphia Eagles, New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers, pulling down 32 career interceptions as a safety from 1989-2000.
Kathy Londry’s brother, Bob Whitfield, also had a sparkling NFL career. Jamal’s uncle was a star football player at Stanford and spent 15 years as an offensive tackle for the Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and the New York Giants from 1992-2006.
“We felt last season that we could win with either DeAndre, or Jamal at quarterback,” Glenn said. “We thought we had a good quarterback behind DeAndre, but no one had really seen him.”
But while the change at quarterback has been the most obvious difference, Moore said there is more to ASU’s recent success than the play of Jackson.
“The biggest thing that’s happened to us is we’ve gained a little confidence,” said Moore. “I don’t think it’s all about Jamal, we’re doing some (other) things we weren’t doing before.”
Some of the biggest differences has been improvement in the running game, behind Travaris Cadet and Steven Miller and better play from a young offensive line.
Such improvement comes at just the right time for the Mountaineers, as they host the top-ranked and undefeated Georgia Southern Eagles on Saturday, with the winner being in the driver’s seat for the Southern Conference championship.
“This is the marquee game on the schedule,” said Jackson. “It’s as big a game as it gets.”
Jackson and his teammates are well aware of the stakes.
ASU is probably facing a must win if it wants to keep its hopes of a record-breaking seventh consecutive Southern Conference title alive. Currently, Appalachian State shares the record with Georgia Southern with at least a share of six straight championships.
The title has only gone to a team with two losses in conference once, when the Mountaineers shared the crown with Wofford in 2007.
“We have to succeed with this game,” Jackson said.
The quarterback with the laser-like arm knows that making good decisions will be one of the big keys against a tough Georgia Southern defense.
Just like the decision he made to stay at Appalachian State.