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Jackson set to take action as UI's new DC

Jan. 17—The Idaho football team's first-year defensive coordinator, Dan Jackson, spent the last two seasons scheming against offenses in the most prolific Power Five conference in the Football Bowl Subdivision, the SEC, as Vanderbilt's defensive backs coach.

Jackson departed Nashville to spearhead the Vandal defense and compete in one of the most sought-after conferences in the Football Championship Subdivision: the Big Sky.

"I'm starting to study the offenses from within the conference," said Jackson, who was hired as the team's defensive coordinator and linebackers coach on Jan. 10. "I think the offensive coaching in the Big Sky is solid. Teams are doing a lot of motion and shifting. I feel like offensive coordinators have been able to study and utilize personnel."

The Omaha, NE., native has held many job titles during his 12-year coaching tenure, including recruiting coordinator, special teams coordinator, defensive backs coach and assistant head coach. But this will be his first time coordinating a defense.

"It starts with championship behavior," Jackson said. "We have a goal to be the hardest-playing defense in the country, and from there, it's going to be about being sound and structured and making sure guys know their job and get to the point where they can execute it on game day."

Jackson doesn't intend to reinvent the wheel schematically, saying Idaho will be "similar to last year" on defense.

"We'll run some 4-2-5 with cover four as our base," Jackson said. "We'll include some cover four variations with some cover two as well. We're really trying to evaluate the personnel as much as we can right now. It's a mistake to just come in and implement a scheme without understanding the talent."

Jackson has been watching the Vandals ever since Eck took over the program in 2022. The pair were on the same staff at South Dakota State from 2016-19.

"I would stay up with my wife and watch them play," Jackson said. "I was really impressed with what I saw on tape, and you see the community support with the sell-out crowds. The trajectory is moving forward, and the program is moving in the right direction."

Jackson talked with members of the Vandal defense last week, and he used that opportunity to build relationships.

"We're going to demand a lot out of our players," Jackson said. "To do that, you have to have a more than surface-level relationship with the guys. I see a lot of athletic guys hungry to win. There's a lot of energy built from last year, and there's a hunger to build on that."

The first-year coordinator didn't highlight a specific player on Idaho's roster. But he did mention each position group and what stood out.

"I'm impressed by the D-line from a physical standpoint," Jackson said. "The youth in the linebacker room and secondary made a lot of plays last year and have some speed, aggression and swagger to them. I don't want to single one guy out. There's going to be a lot of competition, and it'll be interesting to see who emerges."

This will also be Jackson's first time coaching linebackers.

Jackson played LB at his alma mater, South Dakota State. He also had multiple mentors who specialized in the position, such as Vanderbilt's headman, Clark Lea.

"I've been around some good coaches and mentors," Jackson said. "I'm excited to work with that group; it'll be a fun transition."

Jackson is exactly what Eck was looking for in a defensive coordinator, saying on Dec. 19 that he was looking for someone "he trusts and is familiar with" to coordinate the defense.

"We have a strong relationship," Jackson said. "Our family stayed connected throughout our time together, and we were able to form a friendship and relationship, and it's been a lot of fun building to the next level."

In Jackson's first season at Vanderbilt, the team tallied six interceptions. The following season, the Commodores doubled their pick count to 12.

Before landing in Nashville, Jackson spent two seasons as the defensive backs coach and co-special teams coordinator at Northern Illinois.

The Huskies tallied three interceptions and 33 pass deflections during the '21 campaign. Defensive back Donte Kent was fourth in the conference in pass deflections (10) and was selected to the Football Writers Association of America's Freshman All-American team.

Before NIU, the Omaha, NE., native spent eight seasons at South Dakota State.

Jackson was a defensive assistant during his first two seasons, and in 2014 he was promoted to defensive backs coach, a position he held for five seasons.

In his first year with the Jackrabbits in 2012, they allowed nine passing touchdowns, and the following season they tallied 22 interceptions, which ranked second in the FCS.

"I think turnovers start with effort," Jackson said. "And then it carries over to the point of being violent around the ball. You have to be physical to dislodge the ball. It's something that's daily, and it's something you want to track and something you want to compete in at practice."

Idaho had just 16 turnovers in 2023 and ended the season with a minus-5 turnover margin.

Jackson's defenses have had a track record of taking the ball away, which is something Idaho lacked a bit last season.

Jackson is taking the reins from former defensive coordinator Rob Aurich, who landed a new gig coaching edge rushers at San Diego State.

Pixley may be contacted at (208) 848-2290, tpixley@lmtribune.com or on Twitter @TreebTalks.