Meet Michigan State's Hero, Jalen Watts-Jackson

Ben AxelrodBig Ten Lead WriterOctober 22, 2015

Oct 17, 2015; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson (20) dives into the end zone for a game winning touchdown as the clock runs out in the fourth quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Michigan Stadium. Michigan State 27-23. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

When the Michigan State defense stripped Michigan punter Blake O'Neill and returned the ball 38 yards as time expired to give the Spartans a 27-23 win over the Wolverines on Saturday, it served as one of the most improbable game-winning plays in college football history.

But 40 miles north of Ann Arbor, one man found himself unsurprised with the Spartans' stunning victory.

At least that was the case when he saw who was carrying the ball into the end zone on Michigan State's momentous touchdown. After all, George Porritt had seen Jalen Watts-Jackson make plenty of game-altering plays before.

"That’s the kind of kid he was in high school. He made big plays when the opportunity was there," Porritt, who coached Watts-Jackson in both football and basketball at St. Mary's Preparatory in Orchard Lake, Michigan, told Bleacher Report. "He was a great defensive player for us in basketball. He had a knack for coming up with the ball."

None of those plays, however, were as big as the one Watts-Jackson made on Saturday, which not only resulted in a season-ending injury but forever placed the Dearborn, Michigan, native's name in Spartans lore.

Prior to Saturday, the soft-spoken redshirt freshman defensive back was a relative unknowneven to Spartans fansa primary special teamer still getting his feet wet in his debut season in East Lansing.

But now, regardless of what he does for the remainder of his college career, Watts-Jackson is a name Michigan State fans will never forget.

"My teammates have been making jokes and stuff, saying, 'Bro, you're about to get a statue made of you,'" Watts-Jackson said during a Wednesday press conference. "You're going to get your name put up in the stadium."

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 17:  Defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson #20 of the Michigan State Spartans runs the football into to endzone for the game winning touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the final seconds of college football game at Michig
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

So just who is Michigan State's latest overnight legend?

In many ways, he's a prototypical Spartan.

A 3-star prospect, Watts-Jackson was hardly highly touted coming out of high school. His list of scholarship offers indicated as much, with the 104th-ranked cornerback in the 2014 class initially receiving invites to play for just Idaho, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan following his junior season.

"He was an outstanding athlete, a football and basketball player," Porritt recalled of Watts-Jackson's high school career. "He had a tremendous vertical. In football, his senior year, he was a great punt returner and receiver for us, as well as a [defensive back]. He played both sides of the ball."

But with his size—in high school, he was listed at 6'0", 172 pounds—it was unlikely that Watts-Jackson would ever be viewed as an elite prospect. "Jalen wasn’t your 4- or 5-[star] guy. He was your next-level guy," Porritt said. "He was always hard-working."

So perhaps it shouldn't come as a surprise that when Watts-Jackson did receive his first big-name scholarship offer, it came by way of the summer camp circuit.

Having already visited East Lansing as a sophomore, Watts-Jackson attended one of the Spartans' camps in April 2013—and two more again in June—before receiving a scholarship offer to play for Michigan State.

Two days later, he committed to spend his college career in East Lansing.

With a track record that includes having developed former 3-star cornerbacks Darqueze Dennard and Trae Waynes into first-round picks, Spartans head coach Mark Dantonio has a history when it comes to developing raw talent.

That's exactly what he saw in Watts-Jackson, as he recalled the same apparent athleticism that Porritt spoke of.

"Good ball skills, 37-inch vertical jump. Good long jump. Ran a very solid 40[-yard dash] for a defensive back in the 4.5[-second] range," Dantonio said of Watts-Jackson. "He was very quick-bodied and when we watched him play in person, we saw all the different things, all the potential come into play."

"Coach Dantonio liked him when we came up for seven-on-sevens there," Porritt said. "He made great plays."

But before Watts-Jackson could become the next Dennard or Waynes, he'd have to first earn his stripes, redshirting in 2014 before spending the first seven weeks of 2015 playing special teams and providing depth behind starter Demetrious Cox as a third-string safety.

In seven games, the 5'11", 192-pounder recorded five tackles, two of which came in a Week 2 win over then-No. 7 Oregon.

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 17: Jalen Watts-Jackson #20 of the Michigan State Spartans scored the game winning touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines during the final seconds of college football game at at Michigan Stadium on October 17, 2015 in East Lansi
Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

"A great tackler," Dantonio said. "He was just getting his feet on the ground basically as a defensive player, but he plays on all of our special teams."

Then came the play that would change Watts-Jackson's career forever, in more ways than one.

On the one hand, Watts-Jackson will now forever be a Michigan State "legend," as Dantonio put it, as evidenced by the outpouring support he's received from Spartans fans in the last week. It's been both a blessing and curse for the formerly unknown defensive back—at least as far as his phone battery is concerned.

"I had a few followers on Twitter and Instagram, but after [the play], it got to where my phone would freeze if I even tried to open the apps," Watts-Jackson said. "I've been trying to reach out to as many people with thank-yous and stuff like that as I could, but it's been honestly sometimes overwhelming to where I can't even use my phone to call or text people."

His historic moment, however, came at a cost, as the injury that Watts-Jackson's return resulted in—a fractured hip by way of an unsuccessful tackle by Michigan tight end Jake Butt—has brought a premature end to his freshman season.

Similar injuries have ended football careers before, most notably NFL running back Bo Jackson's.

But after undergoing surgery and spending two nights in the hospital, Watts-Jackson is expected to make a full recovery.

"He’s doing OK," Porritt said, noting that he spoke with his former player on Tuesday. "He’s got a long road to haul here."

ANN ARBOR, MI - OCTOBER 17:  Defensive back Jalen Watts-Jackson #20 of the Michigan State Spartans is lifted onto a stretcher after being injured on his game winning 38 yard touchdown against the Michigan Wolverines following the college football game at
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Having to stay off his hip for three months—he's currently getting around with a wheelchair and walker—Watts-Jackson will likely miss next year's spring football session, as it will be at least six months before he's able to run again.

After that, he'll undoubtedly regain his starting spots on the Spartans' special teams units and continue to work toward fulfilling the potential that's been apparent to both his former head coach and his current one.

"We have big plans for Jalen," Dantonio said.

What the future holds for Watts-Jackson remains to be seen. But his past, as improbably as the play that put him there, has already been etched into Michigan State history.

 

Ben Axelrod is Bleacher Report's Big Ten lead writer. You can follow him on Twitter @BenAxelrod. Unless noted otherwise, all quotes were obtained firsthand. All statistics courtesy of cfbstats.com. Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.