It's been 11 weeks, but the moment seems much longer in the past with all that's transpired in this Gophers football season.
In the opener against Nebraska on Aug. 31, Daniel Jackson leaped out of bounds to snare the ball out of the air while simultaneously dragging his right toe in bounds. A fan might pull a muscle just thinking about the catch.
Jackson's catch of a fourth-and-10 pass from Athan Kaliakmanis for a 13-yard touchdown tied the score 10-10 with 2:32 to play in a game the Gophers would win 13-10. It's a signature moment of 2023 for Jackson, but not nearly the only highlight for the junior who's seized the role as WR1 for Minnesota.
When the Gophers face No. 2 Ohio State on Saturday afternoon in "The Horseshoe," consensus will say the best wide receiver on the field will be Buckeyes star Marvin Harrison Jr., whose 12 touchdown catches rank second nationally and who is averaging 18 yards on his Big Ten-leading 59 receptions.
The second best? With apologies to Buckeyes five-star wideouts Emeka Egbuka and Julian Fleming, that title — based on 2023 productivity — might belong to Jackson, a former three-star recruit whose 681 receiving yards and seven touchdown catches rank third in the Big Ten.
"He's developing into a No. 1 receiver in the Big Ten for us, and he's worked really hard at it,'' Gophers coach P.J. Fleck said. "It encompasses a lot to say that you're that guy, from going back to Rashod Bateman and Tyler Johnson. … Daniel is really developing into somebody that we trust in every situation, and his best football is ahead of him."
Work leads to improvement
At 6-foot and 200 pounds, Jackson doesn't have the physical tools of the 6-4, 205-pound Harrison, but the Kansas City, Kan., native makes it work by putting in the work, constantly striving to learn.
"I'm always trying to widen my repertoire for whatever type of coverage, whatever type of leverage I'm getting,'' Jackson said. "I'm always trying to find a way to make any route, any play work. Wide receiver is art, and you can be creative.''
Creativity has resulted in productivity for Jackson, who has surpassed 100 receiving yards in three of the past four games. Against Iowa, he caught seven passes for 101 yards, including a 39-yard grab in the fourth quarter that set up the Gophers' winning field goal.
He had seven catches for 120 yards against Michigan State, including a 22-yard TD that gave Minnesota the lead for good late in the second quarter. Against Purdue, he caught seven passes for 119 yards with key grabs on three scoring drives.
"He's playing every [wide receiver] position. He's running every route in the route tree," Fleck said. "He's become really reliable."
Pro Football Focus agrees, giving Jackson a 79.2 grade, which ranks fourth among Big Ten wide receivers behind Harrison (89.6), Michigan's Roman Wilson (85.8) and Illinois' Isaiah Williams (81.9).
Leadership grows with experience
Jackson has taken over the top wideout role from Chris Autman-Bell, the seventh-year senior whose playing time has been limited this year because of a devastating knee injury that cut short his 2022 season. Autman-Bell, though, has helped Jackson by being a valuable mentor. The protégé even has adopted the physical attitude that "Crab'' embraces when it comes to run blocking.
"I truly believe it's a mindset," Jackson said. "It's taking a man's will across from you. Players are capable of doing it. But are you willing to do it?"
The Gophers have lost two consecutive games to fall to 5-5, and the passing game started fast each time but faltered in the second half. Jackson believes the Gophers need to get back to basics to find consistency.
"We just need to stay steady and just continue to trust the process and trust our eyes and trust our fundamentals," he said. "We need to carry that over into the second half."
Jackson and Kaliakmanis consistently spend post-practice hours putting in the extra work, aiming to complete each other's sentences through the passing and catching of a football. Kaliakmanis has targeted Jackson 72 times with 45 passes completed, stats that lead the Gophers.
"I know where he's going to be. He knows where I'm gonna put the ball," Kaliakmanis said. "He's a great target, and that's just because of all the work he's putting in."
Fleck sees Jackson growing into a leadership role that goes along with his productivity on the field.
"There's just a competitive nature to anybody who wants to be their best," Fleck said. "And Daniel has that every day."