When former Maryland football cornerback JC Jackson graduated from Immokalee High School in Florida in 2014, he was widely considered one of the best recruits in the country, ranking No. 136 overall in 247Sports' composite rankings.
But injuries marred stints at Florida and Riverside City College, preventing Jackson from turning that potential into on-field production in his first two years of college. He transferred to Maryland in 2016 without having made a Division I start. Finally healthy last season, he starred as a key member of the Terps secondary.
Jackson pounced on that momentum by declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft and began training for next month's scouting combine alongside SEC defensive backs Minkah Fitzpatrick and Carlton Davis — All-Americans expected to become first-round draft picks.
While Jackson carries a similar recruiting pedigree to those players, he likely has more to prove in the pre-draft process considering his late breakout with the Terps. Rather than being nervous about that pressure, though, he's looking forward to the chance to show he belongs in the conversation with top prospects.
"It's just an opportunity for me," Jackson said. "I'm not stressed out by anything, man. I'm just happy I have the chance to showcase my talent."
After dealing with shoulder injuries early in his college career, Jackson rebuilt his NFL draft stock by starting 23 of 24 games for Maryland over the past two seasons. As the Terps' top cover corner last year, he helped secure road wins with game-changing plays in the secondary.
Maryland threw a pick-six and punted to begin its season opener at then-No. 23 Texas, but Jackson intercepted an overthrown deep ball on the Longhorns' ensuing possession to change the outlook of the contest. The Terps scored 27 unanswered points after that play and went on win, 51-41, for their first road upset since 2008.
Jackson then clinched a 31-24 victory over Minnesota on Sept. 30, jumping in front of a receiver to intercept a pass with 41 seconds to go. The clutch pick led defensive coordinator Andy Buh to laud Jackson's progress since his arrival in College Park.
"What you're seeing is a stronger, healthier, smarter JC Jackson," Buh said. "He's really contributing a lot right now."
Coach DJ Durkin, who facilitated Jackson's move to College Park after working with him at Florida as a defensive coordinator in 2014, offered similar praise.
"He's a phenomenal talent," Durkin said in October. "If you look at the grand scheme of things for him, he was without football for two years, he came here and played [in 2016], dealt with two shoulder injuries basically the entire season, and just played through it because he's tough enough to do it."
Jackson recorded 40 tackles, three interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2017.
With significant interest from NFL teams — Jackson is projected to go in the first four rounds of the draft — the 6-foot-1 corner opted to leave Maryland with a year of eligibility left. He began rigorous training in South Florida less than a month after the Terps' final game against Penn State.
To prepare, Jackson has practiced the defensive back drills he'll face at the combine, working out Monday through Saturday for about four hours each day. He'll travel to Indianapolis on March 1 and perform in front of scouts there on March 5, a milestone he said he's dreamed about since he started playing football.
The specifics of where he'll be drafted are unclear, but Jackson is confident he's on track to find a home at the next level.
"I try not to focus on that part," Jackson said. "I just keep working … and I hope everything else falls in place."