One of the few stark details Tom Carpenter can remember from Sam Jackson’s days at American Taekwondo Association Carpenter’s Family Taekwondo is the nickname his mother gave him.
She called him “Sugar Lump” because of how big he was from a young age — basically always the biggest kid his age wherever he went. This included Carpenter’s Family Taekwondo.
“We’ll get kids who want to play football, but are too big for their age,” said Carpenter, the owner of the Taekwondo studio. “He became a really good martial artist.”
Picture it: A 7-year-old deemed too big to play tackle football, who one day blossomed into a 6-foot-6 left tackle with Division I coaches knocking on his door, leaping through the air, toes level with his head or contorting his body to lift the soles of his feet toward the ceiling. He was, like many others around his age, drawn to the sport by a love of Power Rangers, and he made it his competitive muse because he was just too big for any of the local tackle football leagues to let him play.
There was an athletic and competitive foundation there, though, that has made him one of Florida’s best offensive linemen.
What we know There probably won’t be much drama this year on National Signing Day. Most of Manatee County’s highest-profile recruits have already made verbal commitments and are, for all intents and purposes, locked in to signing as planned Wednesday. Here’s where the county’s Division I prospects are heading: A.J. Colagiovanni, quarterback, Manatee — Stetson* Tarique Milton, wide receiver, Manatee — Undecided Seth Walter, guard/tight end, Manatee — Dartmouth* Garrett Ware, linebacker/tight end, Manatee — Stetson* Christian Kalish, offensive lineman, Palmetto — Air Force Louis Colosimo, quarterback, Braden River — Bryant* Darrien Grant, defensive end, Southeast — South Florida Peyton Vining, wide receiver/linebacker, Saint Stephen’s — Undecided * — Football Championship Subdivision program
He is perhaps Manatee County’s most high-profile, homegrown player set to make a college commitment official Wednesday as part of signing day. A three-star prospect according to 247sports.com’s composite rankings and the highest-rated player from a school in the county other than IMG Academy, Jackson is set to sign a National Letter of Intent with Central Florida at Lakewood Ranch High School. He’s the highest rated offensive lineman committed to UCF’s Class of 2017, which includes 14 other three-star prospects already locked in through hard commitment, signing or early enrollment. Even within Lakewood Ranch’s recent history of standout offensive linemen, Jackson has found a way to separate himself.
The weight limits that kept Jackson away from the football field until he was in seventh grade were, in many ways, a blessing. He played flag football and baseball until second grade, when he found taekwondo.
It started on a whim and eventually became a full-fledged family activity. His mother started taking lessons with him, and they eventually talked Sam’s brother, Marshall Jackson, into reluctantly spending a summer with them. A few years later, Marshall became an instructor.
Taekwondo wasn’t just a way to kill time for the Jackson family. They took lessons four times a week for almost five years and competed multiple times in statewide competitions at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
“I, at that point,” Jennifer Jackson jokes, “never realized how many angry women there were.”
It was never about the results for Sam. He told his mother when he was 3 that his dream was to one day play for the Buccaneers — years of watching her scream at the television every Sunday will do that — and a decade after he first started competing in taekwondo the process still benefits him.
Carpenter recalls Jackson already being unusually strong and flexible for his age when he first started lessons, and as he progressed to his black belt it became more impressive.
Take the butterfly kick. It’s an upper-level technique needed to get a black belt in which the individual spins through the air, swinging both legs parallel to the ground. Or the crescent kick. For this kick, the individual kicks forward, then rotates the leg in a crescent shape toward his or her own and back to the floor. Both moves open the hip flexors and build up the sort of flexibility that helps in any sport.
It’s not entirely unusual for football players to learn the form. A few summers ago, Carpenter’s facility became a destination for a number of Chicago Bears defensive linemen who were spending their offseason training at IMG Academy.
“Honestly, it helped me out in the long run,” Jackson said. “I’m more flexible because of it.”
There are two things that stand out about Jackson the first time you see him on a football field. One is obvious and one is more subtle.
The first, and obvious, thing is that he’s gigantic. Lakewood Ranch’s roster on MaxPreps.com listed him at 6-6 and 310 pounds. He’s big enough that despite being a self-described terrible basketball player, Mustangs head basketball coach Jeremy Schiller stuck him on the area’s best team without a tryout. It’s the sort of size that can get a player a college scholarship on frame alone.
The second is how well he bends at the knees. It’s the cry you’ll hear anytime you stand around the offensive linemen at a football practice. The flexibility to pop in and out of a kneel is the separator for good linemen and great ones.
“When you see a 6-foot-5 kid who can bend, and he’s 14 years old,” Koczersut said, “in your head you’re going, This kid’s going to play college football.”
Koczersut was the Mustangs’ offensive coordinator during Jackson’s freshman year, when the offensive lineman moved up to the varsity as a guard. Jackson played the last three or four games, Koczersut said, to get acclimated to varsity speed. By the following fall, he was entrenched as Lakewood Ranch’s starting left tackle and stayed there for the next three years.
Jackson’s recruiting profile Three-star recruit No. 120 offensive tackle. No. 184 player in Florida No. 1,298 player in the nation According to 247sports.com’s composite rankings
“He looked like he should be there, but at times he didn’t know what he was doing,” Koczersut remembers from Jackson’s freshman season. “It’s tough with a kid that big because you’re seeing a big kid like that and you’re expecting him to act like he’s 18 when he’s still 15, so you’ve got to reprogram yourself to think he’s going to make these mistakes because he’s still not strong enough.”
Now he arguably holds the distinction of being the most sought after football recruit in Lakewood Ranch’s history, which also includes NFL players Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Austin Reiter. Miami offered Jackson a scholarship before his junior year, and South Florida reached out to the lineman before he pledged to the Knights.
“Ultimately what it comes down to,” Koczersut said, “Sam has the physical attributes, he has the work ethic, and he has the academic and support of it.
Jeremy Schiller isn’t shy about tossing praise Jackson’s way. He’s said on multiple occasions that he thinks the lineman can one day play in the NFL. In the almost two years he has spent coaching Jackson, plus a year of having him in class, he’s seen Jackson’s mental acuity feed into his remarkable athleticism.
Schiller, the head coach of the Mustangs’ boys basketball team, tried to recruit Jackson during his freshman year and was rebuked. A year later, Schiller saw it firsthand when Jackson enrolled in his gym basketball class.
“I sucked at basketball,” Jackson said. “I honestly think I suck at basketball.”
The primary issue wasn’t necessarily difficult for Schiller to diagnose. Jackson was trying to do everything way too quickly. He’d grab a rebound near the hoop and quickly fling the ball back toward the basket. Sometimes it would sail over the stanchion. It basically never went in.
I love the fact that Sam plays three sports. I wish all our kids would play more sports.
Mick Koczersut, Lakewood Ranch head coach
Schiller pulled Jackson aside. “Just go slow,” he said. Jackson was far and away the biggest kid in his class. He could hold the ball over his head and no one could grab it. If he did that and took his time he would at least become useful.
“He went from being like the last kid getting picked to being one of the first kids getting picked because he’s the biggest guy out there,” Schiller said. “He learned how to make a layup. Now you are an impactful P.E. basketball player at Lakewood Ranch.”
This spring, he will become a three-sport athlete for the second straight year when he competes in the shot put for the Mustangs’ track and field team. Last year, Jackson won the Class 4A silver medal.
Playing multiple sports has become an emphasis at Lakewood Ranch, and Jackson is the school’s shining example of its importance. Basketball keeps him in shape and the post moves he has learned aided his footwork at left tackle. Shot put keeps him regimented into the spring and continues to develop the hip flexibility taekwondo started.
Jennifer Jackson has done research on the value of multi-sport athletes reaching the NFL, and Schiller made it part of his final pitch to bring Jackson into the basketball program. He searched back a few years to pull together a rough estimate of first- and second-round offensive linemen who played high school basketball.
“It was,” Schiller said, “I want to say 75 or 80 percent.”
Jackson stood in line with his mother in a Southwest Airlines boarding zone, ready to hop on a plane from Houston to Tampa after the Army All-American Combine when Jackson saw a familiar face. He tapped his mother on the shoulder to point out a mutual idol: John Gruden.
Jennifer jumped on the opportunity. She told the former Tampa Bay head coach how big of Bucs fans the two were and how much they liked him personally. Gruden couldn’t help but notice Jackson, who even in an airport littered with football players stood out.
The two started talking and the conversation naturally moved to the recruiting process. Jackson’s decision ultimately came down 16 words of advice he remembers Gruden offering.
“Pick a school,” Gruden said, “where if football wasn’t there you’d still want to go to school there.”
“It just fit me,” Jackson said. “It’s somewhere I would want to be if I didn’t have football.”
Who: High school senior football and soccer players
When: Wednesday (though signing period last seven days)
Where: Ceremonies planned at multiple area schools