COLUMBUS â€” Steve Leisz could tell that Donovan Jackson was disappointed during their conversation last month.
Leisz, the head coach at Episcopal High School in Bellaire, Texas, started by congratulating Jackson on earning the highest honor a high school lineman can earn. Jackson had been named the Anthony Munoz High School Lineman of the Year by the All-American Bowl Selection Committee, beating out every other player on both sides of the ball in the country.
Jackson didn’t want the congratulations message. He was upset. The Lineman of the Year honor was certainly great. But Jackson didn’t win the other award he was a finalist for:Â Man of the Year, also given out the All-American Bowl Selection Committee.
And that’s the award that mattered more to Jackson.
“We got back to school, and I could finally congratulate him in person,” Leisz said. “I said, ‘Hey, congratulations on winning the award, top lineman. But push comes to shove, which one do you really want more?’ Donovan said: ‘It’s not even close. I wanted to be Man of the Year.’ He was hurt. I could tell he was hurt inside. Donovan, you were just named national lineman of the year. That’s offense and defense, you are the dude on both sides of the ball. He said, ‘But coach, that’s not Man of the Year.’
“So, that’s where he’s at.”
That’s how Donovan Jackson operates. He’s a nice guy off the field. But once he gets on the field, it’s a different world.
“When the game starts,” Jackson said. “I get really serious and flip the switch.”
He’s the No. 1 offensive line prospect in the country, but he’s also a soft-spoken, humble kid from the Houston suburbs. How do the traits — smart, easy-going, nasty, mean, punisher on the field — all blend? That’s what makes Jackson so special.
Donovan Jackson, the person
All it takes is watching the ball leave a kicker’s foot and for a game to begin. Before that moment, he is cool, calm, relaxed and a fun person to be around. A “Jackson,” as he described it.
What does it mean to be a Jackson?
“When you see me in person, I feel like I am a really nice person,” Jackson said. “My parents raised me to be a Jackson that they thought a Jackson should be.”
He’s respectful. During his sophomore year when there were upperclassmen along the offensive line, Jackson respected that they were the leaders of the unit up front. But he made sure to remind them: “Next year, it’s my line.”
He’s a leader on the field and in the classroom, too. He seems to have a special way of handling his business, much like fellow Episcopal High attendee and five-star offensive lineman Walker Little, who went to Stanford and now will be selected in the 2021 NFL draft. Neither No. 1 offensive lineman celebrated after plays at Episcopal. They both led by example but could also be effective with their voices.
The similarities are there, but there’s something about Donovan that attracts people.
“It’s really interesting,” Leisz said. “There are very few people that carry the clout that he has when he walks around campus. Wherever he goes and when he speaks, people just look up. I told him, ‘Donovan, you’ve got a long reach. You can change a lot of things.’
“He has that ability off the field.”
Those characteristics are part of why the Buckeyes are about to welcome Jackson into the Woody Hayes Athletic Center in June. He has a unique way of leading along the offensive line, all while listening and learning when he comes off the field.
“The best thing about him is when he comes off the field, he’s intense but he can communicate,” Leisz said. “And as a coach, you can talk to him. He’s telling you what he’s seeing out there, what’s working and what we need to be doing.
“He knows that when he puts that helmet back on, that switch is back.”
That switch is what makes Jackson go from incredible person to nasty, decorated and intimidating offensive lineman.
Donovan Jackson, the player
The leadership skills have always made Jackson special. If that’s not enough, check out his combine numbers and Hudl tape.
Jackson can easily go from mind-mannered and respected leader to freak athlete with the flip of a switch, a rare ability that makes him the perfect offensive line prospect. When he sits back and thinks about what makes him a gifted athlete, he can’t help himself.
“I’m a pretty humble guy,” Jackson said. “But after seeing [the tape and my numbers], I’m like: Wow, I am pretty good.”
Jackson seems to have every quality in a high school prospect. He’s long, flexible, quick with his feet, can plow through defenders in run-blocking and can prevent disruption in pass-blocking — all qualities that earned him the National Lineman of the Year honor.
Jackson was nearly perfect in practice and games. When Leisz and his staff cut up tape to send out to each player after practice, he had to make up mistakes. Minor hand placement, sloppy technique — which was never actually sloppy — and even minuscule details like a dirty locker room were added in to Jackson’s tape on the field and day as a leader to keep him humble.
The only penalties Jackson has been called for were due to pancake blocks — after driving an overmatched defensive end 20 yards down the field.
There are no flaws. There are no plays off. Just a dogged work ethic from a gifted athlete. All of that can translate to Ohio State.
Donovan Jackson, the future Ohio State star
Jackson’s best year wasn’t the year he was named National Lineman of the Year.
No, it was his junior year when he was the most dominant player he could be, making easy work of any defender in his path.
“Junior year was my best year,” he said. “I felt like I was a different animal my junior year. Senior year, I was just as good, it’s just that we played a lot of competitive teams. I was tested a lot. But I feel like junior year, I was really dominating all aspects of the game.”
On a visit to Ohio State during that dominant junior season, Jackson committed to Ryan Day and the Buckeyes. That moment was special for Jackson, whose parents are both from Ohio — and for Day and the Ohio State coaching staff, a huge win on the recruiting trail in the Lone Star State.
“Donovan Jackson just jumps off the film,” Day said on Signing Day in December. “He had a funny commitment to us still early on in the process. We were in my office and was not expecting him to commit. He did and I almost fell to the floor. That was a huge deal for us to get Donovan. His family is unbelievable. They’ve been great during this whole process. Schools continually tried to recruit him out of Texas and he just stayed strong.
“His loyalty and faith has been tremendous. Another great student and a great culture fit.”
That perfect fit, both on the field and off, Jackson is certainly excited to be in Columbus but didn’t enroll early due to high school rules. That hasn’t stopped him from already adapting to the Buckeyes training program, preparing to arrive in June and immediately compete for a starting slot. That competitive nature drives him to step in and immediately challenge the veterans in offensive line coach Greg Studrawa’s room.
“I’m going to play my brand of football,” Jackson said. “I do understand there’s going to be a giant learning curve that I’ll have to get down quickly, because those guys are the best at where they came from. It’s not going to be high school football anymore. It’s going to be fast-paced, strong Ohio State football. I just want to contribute the best I can.”
The puzzling part for Day, Studrawa and Jackson now becomes figuring out an ideal position for Jackson. Leisz and the Episcopal staff made sure to teach Jackson every position on the line. So where will he play in the future? The career tackle could be an All-American wherever the Buckeyes choose to play him.
“I think guard,” Jackson said. “I want to say guard because of the classes. I confuse myself on that question. So many people ask me if I am a guard or tackle, and I don’t know. I feel like I like to play guard, but I’m really good at tackle, too. I played tackle all my high school career, but I feel like at the next level, I’ll translate to guard better.”
His leadership style and run-blocking ability should translate to a Wyatt Davis-level career. Those high expectations aren’t tossed around lightly, but Jackson uses that as motivation and fuel. He’s already looking forward to competing in practice against the best defensive linemen in the country, singling out Mike Hall and Tyleik Williams as guys he will surely handle in the trenches.
As for a challenge, Jackson is always up for one. And he’s ready for the biggest one he’s ever faced. He’ll see it every day in practice.
“Haskell Garrett, he’s the man,” Jackson said. “To be able to practice against him every day, to be able to lift with him, it’s an honor in itself, so I’m looking forward to getting in with those guys.”
The high school Lineman of the Year is about to take a massive leap into one of the best college football programs in the country. But that next step doesn’t bother this leader, future Ohio State star and potential NFL offensive lineman. It’s all ahead of Donovan Jackson.
Maybe he can even finally win a Man of the Year honor at one of the next two levels, too.