Donte Jackson had four interceptions as a rookie in 2018 but none in the final eight games.
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Donte Jackson stepped in front of a Cam Newton pass as though it were intended for him and immediately let the Carolina Panthers quarterback know it, barking, “You better think twice before that over here.”
The second-year cornerback chirped at Newton again a few plays later, after stripping a receiver of a perfect pass over the middle.
Newton has been, according to Panthers offensive coordinator Norv Turner, quieter than in past years during this training camp. Not having linebacker Thomas Davis to trash-talk with has something to do with that. Staying focused on rehabbing from shoulder surgery does too.
Jackson hasn’t quieted down at all. If anything, he is more boisterous than he was in his rookie season, refusing to let what he calls the misrepresentation of his demeanor on Amazon Prime Video’s “All or Nothing” series define who he is and making sure Newton has somebody on the defensive side to keep him from getting complacent.
“I’m a pit bull,” Jackson said. “And if you don’t understand that, you’re a puppy.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound Jackson, otherwise known as “Action Jackson,” came off as frustrated and mistake-prone in the series. Now, it’s not that he didn’t make his share of mistakes, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort or confidence that viewers might have perceived.
If his performance in the first week of training camp is any indication, Jackson didn’t let the show’s portrayal of him get into his head.
“Never lost my edge, never will lose my edge,” Jackson said. “My confidence is something you’re born with — and something someday I’ll die with.”
Jackson’s edge is reminiscent of that of former Carolina cornerback Josh Norman, who started in his first 12 games as a rookie in 2012. But after being benched, Norman all but disappeared from the lineup for a season and a half before reemerging in 2015 as a Pro Bowl player.
Norman’s confidence was shaken. Jackson’s confidence is stronger than ever.
“The thing about Donte is even though he was confident last year, he wasn’t sure,” Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. “This year he’s sure. And you see it in the way he’s doing things, the way he works, the way he is preparing for every practice.
“You do see a much more mature young man.”
During practice, Jackson motioned to the crowd for a little love after breaking up a deep pass from Newton to No. 1 wide receiver DJ Moore.
Despite starting all 16 games last season and having a team-high four interceptions, Jackson had only seven pass breakups. James Bradberry, who started at the other corner spot, had 20.
The mistakes that contributed to Jackson’s low PBU total are what prompted then-strong safety Mike Adams, free safety Eric Reid and cornerback Captain Munnerlyn to meet privately with the former LSU star in the team meeting room.
The cameras caught the moment that included Adams telling Jackson that his four interceptions were hiding — at least to the general public — repeated mistakes. Rivera’s profanity-laced halftime speech that included a message for Jackson, who let Pro Bowl wide receiver Antonio Brown get deep behind him for a 53-yard touchdown catch, also was a standout scene in the show.
“Don’t let him get inside your head,” Rivera yelled. “You’ve got just as much skill and ability as anybody on that damn field. You’ve got to keep your mind in the game and stay focused.”
Those moments led Jackson to tweet: “Watching @allornothing pissed me off lowkey, y’all did me down bad.”
Adams said Jackson has every right to be ticked off and noted that the meeting with him was more of a compliment than a putdown because of the high expectations for the second-round pick.
“I understood what he was saying because it was a lot more going on than just that right there,” Adams told ESPN. “It almost seemed like he was defending himself, which he really wasn’t.
“I just wanted him to hone in a little more, to lock in a little bit more. At the end of the day, everybody said he played well. I’m telling you, what I saw, what Eric Reid saw and Captain saw, I’m talking about rookie-of-the-year type things. It’s a lot of things he could have achieved.”
Panthers defensive coordinator Eric Washington also is excited about Jackson’s potential. “He knows better he’ll have to rely on more than his physical gifts to get the job done,” he said.
“Donte has a really engaging personality,” Washington added. “I can’t speak to how he was portrayed, but I do know this: Every person goes through ups and downs over the course of a season. Donte had a lot more good days, from what I saw, than he did days where he was frustrated.
“He’s a determined young man. He’s grounded. He’s a family-oriented young man. He’s focused, and he wants to fit into a team dynamic. He realizes he has to grow, just like we all do.”
Rivera is glad the show bothered Jackson.
“I’d much rather have a guy that takes it personally, that’s upset, that, in the heat of the moment, wants to be successful,” he said. “I have no issue with it.”
Jackson is a different person when he is at home with his 1-year-old daughter, Demi Dalia Jackson.
Gone are the bravado and cockiness. There is a gentle, loving side that makes Jackson vulnerable in ways he has never experienced in football.
“Actually, she teaches me more than I teach her,” Jackson said. “I relieve myself from all the stress and emotions that come from football and playing this game at the highest level [around her]. It’s good to go home and relax and just be a father.”
Jackson knew he had an edge from the time he started playing sports. That has allowed him to play bigger than his size.
“I knew that I had a different type of confidence in myself than a lot of people I came in contact with,” Jackson said. “I always talk about myself. I always talk about what I can do. A lot of people say don’t talk about it, be about it. Who says you can’t be both?”
Becoming a father has intensified Jackson’s confidence.
“It’s actually made me more of a dog,” he said. “I just know I have to turn that dog off when I go inside and just turn into a little, gentle pup.”
Jackson waved to somebody in the crowd during a break in practice earlier this week. He loves being a showman and jawing with Newton.
“I’m chirping a whole lot out there,” Jackson said. “I’ve got to keep the defense going. They expect that from me. Really, just getting out there and trying to have fun and keep the vocals going. Somebody has got to talk back to Cam.
“I’ll be the voice for whoever makes the play if they don’t want to. Really, just trying to make the energy, man.”
That’s the image Jackson was hoping people would see on “All or Nothing.”
“They had a lot of moments that they caught of me being myself and caught me being natural, jolly, great teammate, but they chose to put out stuff that isn’t me,” Jackson said. “I’m not sitting here saying it was somebody else playing me for those moments.
“But when you catch me at a different moment when I’m not being myself, that’s what you’re going to get.”
Adams believes Jackson can be one of the best corners in the league. That day could be coming sooner rather than later.
“The sky’s the limit for me,” Jackson said. “Every day I’m getting better. Every day I’m improving. Every day I try to bring something different to the table and help my team win games.”