Junior linebacker Akeem Jackson is making an impact for the top-ranked Crusaders.

BELTON — Whether it was by intention or coincidence, Mary Hardin-Baylor assistant coach Jack Johnson perfectly summarized the learning curve for a college defensive player while talking about junior linebacker Akeem Jackson.

“In high school, I think they kind of let him do his thing and run to the ball, so learning the ins and outs of a sophisticated defense wasn’t natural to him. He just wanted to go tackle the ball,” said Johnson, who’s in charge of the linebackers at his alma mater. “In our defense, though, everyone has a role to play and every tackle is not his to make. Once he realized that is when he started playing better and doing his job consistently.”

In his first season as a full-time starter, the 6-foot, 215-pound Jackson is certainly doing his job of late. His 10-tackle, two-interception performance last week pushed his season total to 25 stops — tied for fourth on the team — heading into this afternoon’s game between the No. 1-ranked Crusaders (5-0, 4-0 American Southwestern Conference) and Southwestern (3-2, 2-2) in Georgetown.

Jackson split time between the junior varsity and varsity squads his freshman season, made 36 tackles while starting five games and appearing in all 15 last year, and has now taken his starting role and run with it.

According to him, the difference in production from year to year was just a matter of getting comfortable in UMHB’s scheme.

“In high school, you wanted to make every play. Here, they always tell us that not every play is yours to make,” he said. “At first, it’s tough to learn that and everything you have to do in this defense. We do it over and over in practice, though, so it makes it easier as you go along.”

Jackson has rolled with the flow all of his life.

He was born in Oakland, Calif., moved with his mom and two siblings to Fairfield prior to the first grade — “My mom wanted to get out of California because it’s so expensive, so we came to Texas to start a new life,” he said — then moved to Dallas from fifth grade through his freshman year at Dallas Hillcrest, and finally returned to Fairfield to finish high school.

To hear him tell the story, he was happy just about every place he lived, even though he was glad he ended up back in Fairfield.

“Dallas was pretty nice. I got a lot of experience in the big city,” he said. “I was excited to get back to Fairfield, though, because I wanted to meet back up with my old friends that I had when I was younger, and they were pretty excited to see me, too.”

Jackson is an interesting fellow.

Truth be told, football hasn’t always been his favorite sport. And even on the gridiron, he always had the desire to play a different position.

“My favorite sport was always basketball. That’s the first sport I ever played,” he said. “I still get a little cardio work in over the summer by playing basketball. I still have my moves and picked up a few new ones, too.

“In football, I always wanted to be a (defensive back) ever since I was little. All my friends were defensive backs, and I did a lot of working out with them. I know I’m a linebacker, though.”

One thing’s for sure. Johnson certainly isn’t looking for a reason to ship Jackson off to another position.

“I don’t know if Akeem understands how talented he really is,” Johnson said. “Last week was the best ballgame he’s played as a Crusader. We’re just scratching the surface with him. He’s such a natural athlete and is so gifted. There’s a lot of room to grow. He’s learning how to be a linebacker, how to handle the film study, how to put in the work to be the best he can be.”

Jackson understands there’s room to improve, and it’s what keeps him working to get better day after day. He also knows about the rich history of linebackers who have played for UMHB, and he wants to make sure he lives up to the standard.

“There’s a little pressure this year being a starter, but I’ve been a starter before. I’m used to it,” he said. “The pressure is just knowing I have to fill the shoes of the linebackers who played here before me.

“That’s one of the best things about playing here, though. And I like winning.”