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No ordinary journey to NFL for new Vikings cornerback

New Vikings cornerback Khyree Jackson is not an ordinary rookie.

Jackson, drafted in the fourth round (108th overall) on Saturday, walks into the NFL as "one of the biggest [cornerbacks] in the league right now," said Ryan Grigson, the Vikings' senior vice president of player personnel. He was the tallest among 67 defensive backs at this year's combine, listed at 6-foot-3¾, and his 33-inch arms were also near the top of the class.

Jackson will also be 25 years old before he plays an NFL regular-season game.

His seven-year journey to the NFL since graduating from Wise High School in 2017 didn't seem likely from the deli counter at a Harris Teeter grocery store near his hometown of Upper Marlboro, Md.

That's where Jackson worked when he didn't play football in 2017 or 2018. He starred as a receiver for a state title-winning high school, but Jackson didn't have the grades for Division I recruitment. He enrolled at Arizona Western College in Yuma, Ariz., but before the season, he left the team and went back to live at home.

"At one point I wasn't really thinking about football much," Jackson said Saturday. "I had just won employee of the month at a grocery store, so I really wasn't thinking much about it, honestly. I told my mom at one point in time, I guess I'm about to be working at a grocery store. … For a bit of a second, football got a little bit foggy."

Jackson said he stayed close to football because he had friends playing at D-I programs. He even avoided those friends and others when he initially moved home to Maryland in the fall of 2017, pretending to still be in school in Arizona.

"I stayed in my house for six straight months, and nobody knew," Jackson said. "It was kind of like eating away at me. And I finally eventually just told my friends. That was like — that moment really told me, like, if I was embarrassed to even tell them, I might want to get up and try to do it again instead of sitting here sulking."

Jackson, an avid gamer, was preparing for an "NBA 2K" video game tournament in New York when Fort Scott Community College head coach Kale Pick emailed him. The coach wanted to know if Jackson wanted to play football again.

He said yes, reigniting a journey that took him to Kansas, Mississippi and the University of Alabama, where he signed as a coveted junior college recruit in 2021. He was a reserve under former Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban for much of his time at Tuscaloosa, making one start in 21 appearances. His tenure ended with a suspension in November 2022 for undisclosed reasons.

Jackson transferred last season to Oregon, where he said he thrived with "a coach who trusted in my abilities." He was named a first-team All-Pac-12 selection with 10 deflections and three interceptions in 12 games.

"I wouldn't change [the journey] for the world, though," Jackson said. "I felt it taught me a lot of perseverance and turned me into the man I am today. I feel like I don't take no shortcuts. … That mentality came from juco and being at the bottom and seeing what it's like to not have anything, to having everything going to some of the top programs."

The Vikings were impressed with how Jackson held his own, earning top honors while twice seeing Washington's prolific passing attack led by quarterback Michael Penix Jr., drafted No. 8 overall by the Falcons, and receiver Rome Odunze, drafted at No. 9 by the Bears.

Coaches and scouts saw how Jackson moved fluidly for his large size and how he had decent recovery speed, clocking a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the combine. Those are appealing traits for a Vikings defense that needs length and speed if coordinator Brian Flores wishes to play more man-to-man coverage.

"The way he drops his weight, his hips, his footwork, it just — again, it's just not ordinary," said Grigson, the Vikings' talent evaluator. "I love the pick because I think all the coaches and everyone see the talent and see some of the rare things that is really hard to get in this [fourth] round."

Jackson's confidence also stood out to the Vikings. Grigson recalled a conversation at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where the Vikings had their first of multiple meetings with Jackson this offseason.

"I just told them I was the best corner in the draft," Jackson said. "I told them they were probably going to be getting me for cheaper because of some of the politics that go into it. … I was in a very pass-heavy conference this year. I think I showed versus a lot of top-tier receivers and quarterbacks what I could do."