ORLANDO – Some unsung heroes are so unsung that they’re not even given the designation.
Consider Miami defensive end Joseph Jackson, a quiet, determined young man who grew up the youngest of seven children in the projects of Homestead, among those.
Jackson, a 6-5, 250-pound chiseled true freshman who turned 20 on Tuesday, has vowed to bring his hometown Hurricanes back to greatness.
He’s had quite a start.
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Jackson is second in the nation in sacks for a freshman, with 7.5 – three more than UM’s next most prolific quarterback tackler, junior Chad Thomas, who compares Jackson and his physique to a “gladiator.’’
He plays like one, too. On a team that ranks sixth in the nation in tackles for loss, Jackson shares the lead with Thomas with 10.5, and has forced and recovered two fumbles, including the one he scooped up and ran 18 yards with straight into the end zone in UM’s victory at Georgia Tech.
And that’s as a backup.
“It’s pretty good,’’ Jackson said this week when his accomplishments were read to him during an interview with the Miami Herald. “But I could have done better. I could have done extra stuff on my own when I had time off, even if it was running a little bit more or watching more film.”
Jackson’s one start in 12 games came against Virginia Tech when the defensive line was beset with injuries. He finished the game with six tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss.
Was he upset that he wasn’t recognized with any postseason awards – either from his coaches or nationally?
“No,’’ Jackson replied. “They will eventually come.’’
In Orlando with the Hurricanes (8-4) to face No. 14 West Virginia (10-2) on Wednesday in the Russell Athletic Bowl, Jackson has two older sisters and four older brothers. He is close with them all, including his oldest brother, Borris Marshall, 30, who has been Jackson’s mentor and motivator.
Marshall said Jackson’s father, now deceased, and their mother were mostly out of Jackson’s life when he was growing up, though their mother did live with them for about three years when Jackson was very young.
Before their grandmother came to the rescue, the children were placed in foster care when it was discovered they had been living without electricity “for six or seven months,’’ Marshall said.
Jackson and his siblings – plus eight cousins – were eventually cared for by grandma in one house.
“Our grandma was everything to us,’’ said Marshall, who now lives in Houston and works for Home Depot. “She passed in 2008. After she passed we understood the void that she filled and that we couldn’t replace it.’’
The children’s aunt, Tranika Ellis, took over and helped raise them when their grandmother died, explained Marshall, helping to release Jackson’s energy and frustration by putting the large, athletic pre-teen into Pop Warner football at Florida City Park. But he got too big and couldn’t make weight, so he began playing basketball until he did both at Miami Gulliver Prep.
“I’m a guy who gets angry a lot,’’ said Jackson, explaining that playing defensive end “helps.’’
He graduated Gulliver as a four-star football prospect and 2015 Miami Herald Class 5A-1A Male Athlete of the Year.
“I don’t really think that not being given awards bothers him because his mindset is that he’s the best, and he doesn’t need anyone to validate that,’’ Marshall said.
Among the schools that offered scholarships to Jackson were Alabama, Clemson, Florida State and Ohio state. But Jackson, who shares the same alma mater as the late Washington Redskin and UM safety Sean Taylor, wanted to uphold the legacy.
“We used to be at the top. We used to be great,’’ Jackson said. “Some of my teammates and I grew up together and thought it would be so cool to come back and help our hometown team be what it used to be. They were so dominant and we wanted to be part of the ‘U’ – the next big thing.
“I love playing here.’’
Hurricanes defensive coordinator Manny Diaz said coaches appreciate Jackson’s passion.
“Like many guys in that freshman class, he’s very serious about being here and one of the local guys who seems personally invested in making Miami great again,’’ Diaz told the Miami Herald. “He’s got that chip on his shoulder to get the Canes back to where the Canes should be.”
Diaz said Jackson has “natural pass-rush ability,’’ but has sometimes struggled in handling the run game, getting “better and better” as the season progressed.
“His attitude is outstanding,’’ Diaz said. “He wants to be good, he wants to be coached hard and he wants to learn.”
Added Jackson’s oldest brother: “When Joseph was younger he’d say, ‘When I get older I’m going to be bigger and better than all of you.’ And I’d say, ‘Prove me wrong!’
“Everyday, he proves me wrong.”