Flying Under the Radar Mark Dantonio Steals a Terrific DB In Jalen Watts-Jackson for 2014

Speed kills. As is increasingly the case in college football, the team with the most speed at the skill positions (cornerback, wide receiver, running back, etc.) often has the upper hand. The Spartan coaching staff is stocking up on speedy players for Michigan State’s 2014 recruiting class. Speedster and defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson is one such player who will help vanquish the team’s enemies.

One of Mark Dantonio’s newest commits, Watts-Jackson, recently joined Hondo S. Carpenter, Sr. on Spartan Nation Radio to talk about Michigan State and his decision to become a Spartan.

Jalen Watts-Jackson flew under the radar for much of his recruitment. A senior at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s in Michigan, Watts-Jackson has tremendous ability. He can snatch balls out of mid-air that seem safely destined for the outstretching fingertips of a wideout. The new Spartan displays blazing bursts of speed in the open field, as supported by his 40-meter dash time of 4.47. Dynamite in the open field with or without the field, Watts-Jackson is an exciting player to watch.

“I’m just now starting to realize how blessed I am,” Watts-Jackson said of his God-given abilities. The youngster also feels lucky that he has such helpful coaches at St. Mary’s. “I came to St. Mary’s as a quarterback. They noticed that I can run and I can jump. Coach [Jeff] Phillips over at St. Mary’s has been working with me to make me a defensive back and he’s been doing a good job of it.”

Seeing time on both sides of the ball as a wide receiver and cornerback, the youngster played a significant role in his team’s Division 3 state championship run in 2011. A number of schools reached out and began to talk to the exciting young player. But during the 2012 season, the narrative was much different for Watts-Jackson.

Before his junior campaign even started, his woes began to pile up. “My first injury came about three weeks before the season. I had a high ankle sprain, and I was supposed to sit out for about three games, but I ended up playing the first game,” Watts-Jackson said. “I wasn’t able to play my best or to my full ability. As I started to recover from that, [during our] seventh game…I dove for a pass and I separated my shoulder. That set me back: I missed a game. It was terrible, just injury after injury.”

The phone stopped ringing. College coaches stopped contacting Watts-Jackson, opting instead to pursue other recruits without an injury history. But Michigan State was the exception. The Spartan coaching staff reached out to Watts-Jackson midway through his sophomore year and stayed in contact even as the youngster struggled with his injury ordeal. MSU’s coaches realized his amazing potential.

“The fact that, even when I wasn’t having my best season, he [MSU quarterbacks coach Brad Salem] was still in contact with me and was still talking to me, that was very good. A lot of schools stopped talking to me. It made me feel like they were still there, even though I wasn’t having my best year,” Watts-Jackson said. “We got to go up and meet other coaches like Coach Harlon Barnett and Coach Dantonio. They just were really great guys who made me feel welcome.”

Michigan State’s continued interest swayed Watts-Jackson, convincing him that East Lansing would be a good home for the next four to five years. “It’s really exciting. When I came into St. Mary’s my freshman year, I never would have thought that I would be committed to Michigan State. It’s crazy, I’m still letting it settle in.”

Spartan fans are already excited to have Watts-Jackson onboard. Many would be dismayed to discover, however, that the young man was once a Wolverines fan. “It was kind of forced upon me because I have family who went to Michigan and all you see around is blue and gold” he explained. “But as I started to develop my own thing and my own team, I became more towards the Spartans.”

Even with the maize and blue blood in the family, Watts-Jackson has had no trouble converting his family to the Green and White. “They’re with me 100 percent when I explained to them why I wanted to be at Michigan State. They have my back on this decision.”

Part of a tight-knit family, Watts-Jackson leaned on them during the recruiting process. “I’m currently living with my dad, but we’re still a really close family, all of us together. My uncle takes care of my recruiting, getting me a good chance. It’s like I get a little support from everybody, whether it’s getting me to camp or signing me up,” the promising cornerback recruit said. “When I made my decision, I had to make sure I made it with everyone, not just my parents.”

The Michigan native has already been welcomed to another close group: the Spartan family. Given a warm welcome by those both inside and outside of the football program, Watts-Jackson will soon be a valued member of the family. On the football field, Harlon Barnett will serve as his “football father” in a sense. The well-respected former Spartan defensive back will certainly be a good mentor for a young player looking to put on some muscle. “Before I get on campus, I definitely need to improve my strength. I’m strong enough, but I can be stronger,” Watts-Jackson said. “I definitely want to be working on my strength.”

Barnett knows a thing or two about strength. Bestowed with the nickname “Da Bang Stick” during his time at MSU and his seven-year NFL career, Barnett earned a reputation of delivering bone-rattling hits. Standing at 5’11, 200 pounds, the former All-American was as tough as nails and strong as a bull. Watts-Jackson could certainly learn a thing or two from such an experience position coach. The developing defensive back has not seen any YouTube clips of Barnett’s crushing hits, “But I got a sense of it at the camp. I can only imagine.”

Not always a physical player, Watts-Jackson has begun to develop a love for hitting. “Playing in the Catholic [High School] League, you have no choice but to come up and tackle. They stress that a lot at our school. We play against huge running backs from Catholic Central, Brother Rice. You have no choice but to step up and tackle. I’ve started to like tackling.” Under Barnett, Watts-Jackson’s passion for hitting will certainly grow. The new Spartan could be a dangerous weapon at cornerback. Speed plus a propensity for laying down big hits is a bad combination for opposing wide receivers.

Some are doubting how solid the young man’s commitment to Michigan State is. Though rumor has it that Watts-Jackson is still shopping around, “I’m fully committed to Michigan State,” Watts-Jackson said. “This is where I want to be for the next four years.”

This might be bad news for Big Ten receivers. Though he has an injury history, Jalen Watts-Jackson has blazing speed and great hands. Under the tutelage of Harlon Barnett, the youngster from St. Mary’s has the skill to develop into the next great Spartan defensive back. With a bright future ahead, Watts-Jackson feels fortunate to be part of the Spartan family. He realizes what it means to wear the Green and White. “To me, being a Spartan means becoming a better man and having a great future.”


Joe Ginley is the newest writer for the Spartan Nation website and magazine. He writes Spartans in the NFL and State of the Spartans among other articles. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Joe brings a great passion for sports and a great flexibility in writing skills.

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