DECATUR — The passes that Deyon Jackson threw just over the outstretched arms of defenders on Monday night were simply another step in the process.
The MacArthur senior is evolving from a first-time varsity starting quarterback, which is how he opened last season, into an integral part of the Generals' offense, but it didn't come without long, arduous days.
Part of the work started in the winter with assistant coach, and former LSA head coach, Craig Bundy. The duo went into the high school gym and revamped Jackson's throwing mechanics, worked on elbow and shoulder placement, reading defenses and pocket passing. The 7-on-7 camps in the summer have helped, including Monday's stop at Mount Zion. Then there's the matter of that hill. The brutal hill at Greenwood Cemetery that Jackson runs five times a day to work on his speed. He can't risk getting chased down by defenders this season — not if he can help it.
After throwing for more than 1,000 yards and rushing for more than 700 as a junior last season, Jackson found plenty to build on. In fact, he's hardly the same quarterback as he was last season. He has 11 games as a varsity quarterback under his belt and found his stride in Week 3, head coach Derek Spates said.
"I’m relaxed and poised now. I’m not nervous, no jitters, none of that," Jackson said. "I’m just relaxing and making throws, just trying to put the ball in the right place at the right time.
“I feel in control. I just control everything out there. Ball placement is everything, making sure my receivers get the right throws to them, the right balls. Everything feels good knowing that you know the plays like the back of your hand."
Jackson welcomed the chance for Bundy to groom him into a better quarterback. He said he's never had that kind of one-on-one coaching before at the position, especially with someone like Bundy, who has a strong coaching pedigree.
“I trusted him and believed in him," Jackson said. "It was fun. I enjoyed it, having someone take me under their wing like that, groom me and improve my game a lot."
He learned the value of the little things. Wrong elbow placement? The ball will spike into the ground or sail over the head of his receivers. It's a delicate dance and footwork has been an emphasis. A few throws sailed on him in Mount Zion on Monday. But more throws were threaded on a line through defenders and into the open arms of his receivers. His progression isn't complete, and Spates doesn't want it to be complete yet. He doesn't want Jackson, who has offers to Division II McKendree University and Quincy University, to feel like he's "tapped out" his potential before taking on snap his senior season.
"After a few 7-on-7s, he has shown to be a good decision maker and picking up his read progressions, but still a work in progress," Bundy said. "That said, his athleticism is going to make him tough to defend."
The athleticism is exactly what makes Jackson an issue for defenders. He didn't run that hill at Greenwood to be able to out-run defensive lineman in the backfield. He needs to, at times, out-run everybody on the field. He's seen his 40-yard dash times drop and his lateral quickness and reaction times improve.
Spates is no stranger to an offense centered around a dual-threat quarterback. Jackson is the current in a long line of quarterbacks who give opposing defenses headaches. For Jackson, it's about continuing to get better within the offense.
“When you have a dual-threat quarterback, they’re tough to defend and you’ve got to change your whole defensive scheme just to figure out a way to stop them," Spates said. "I think he’s one of those guys who, as he gets more comfortable in our offense and guys start executing and you put more playmakers around him, it’s going to be tough to stop him. He’s going to be the guy you’ve got to try to account for while you try to stop some of our other weapons."
Jackson will helm an offense that's full of playmakers. Receiver A.J. Lawson is verbally committed to play at the University of Iowa and running back Jeffery Wells has Division I scholarship offers on the table. Receivers like Devin Heise and Omarion Slaw have had strong summers. There are plenty of weapons that won't put the onus of offensive success directly on Jackson's shoulders.
“Deyon has really matured a lot as a quarterback," Lawson said. "As you can see out at 7-on-7s, he’s matured a lot. He’s back there comfortable at quarterback. That’s all it takes is for him to get comfortable. You can see it in his dropbacks, just putting the ball exactly where it needs to be. I feel like he’s improved a lot.
“I feel like we’re a powerhouse offense. I feel like we’re one of the best offenses in the state. Our passing game, I feel like, is unstoppable."
The last time Jackson played on MacArthur's home field, he torched Morton for six total touchdowns in the first round of the Class 5A playoffs.
After that game, Spates talked about Jackson's progress in the season. Since then, he's put in plenty of offseason work. Perhaps Jackson is just getting started.
“If you surround somebody like me with weapons, it can get dangerous," Jackson said.