When the average fan thinks of high-quality college football, it’ll be a long time before they come around to the Sun Belt Conference. Even stalwart college football fans would name several programs within the conference before they landed on Coastal Carolina University. But if 2021 NFL Draft edge rush sleeper Tarron Jackson has anything to say about it, that’ll change soon.

The Chanticleers of Coastal Carolina have steadily been building a solid football program since their inception in 2003. Head coach David Bennett led the Chants to four Big South Conference titles from 2003 to 2010. Bennett’s successor Joe Moglia went on to lead the program to three straight Big South titles from 2012-2014 before Coastal Carolina made the jump to the FBS level in 2017.

The program’s success has been built in large part to several high-quality college football players who didn’t get the recognition they might have deserved. But at the end of Moglia’s tenure and now under new head coach Jamey Chadwell, people are starting to take notice.

Chants’ running back C.J. Marable may be a sleeper at the running back position for the 2021 NFL Draft in his own right. But everything starts and ends with edge rush sleeper Tarron Jackson. Jackson has started to get some well-deserved publicity in the media. His stock should only rise from here.

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Who is Tarron Jackson?

Tarron Jackson arrived at Coastal Carolina in the fall of 2016. Recruited by fellow Sun Belt rival Appalachian State, Jackson chose the Chanticleers because his visit made him “feel like family.” In his tenure at Coastal Carolina, Marable, and fellow teammates like ex-Clemson defensive tackle Sterling Jackson, offensive lineman Trey Carter, wide receiver Malcolm Williams, and others have led the team into becoming a rising program in its own right.

Jackson played in four games his freshman season before suffering a season-ending injury. Jackson would receive a redshirt for the season and come back strong in 2017. Jackson appeared in eight games in his redshirt freshman season, starting in the team’s season opener. Once again, however, Jackson’s season would be cut short due to injury.

Jackson’s redshirt sophomore season is where things started coming together. Despite once again struggling with injury, Jackson played in all 12 of the Chanticleer’s games. Even injured, his dominance was apparent. Jackson finished the season with 58 total tackles, including 11 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.

Then it all clicked in 2019. Finally healthy, Jackson burst onto the scene as a redshirt junior and put the college football world on notice. Jackson erupted for 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Now, as a redshirt senior, he’s poised to make noise again in the college football world. Perhaps more importantly, Jackson has positioned himself as a sleeper edge rusher for the 2021 NFL Draft.

Let’s explore what aspects of Jackson’s game are most alluring to NFL teams, and where Jackson still has room to grow.

What makes Jackson an edge rush sleeper in 2021?

The athleticism Tarron Jackson possesses immediately jumps out when you watch Coastal Carolina. You can’t help but notice how, no matter who he’s lined up against, he just seems like the bigger, stronger, and faster player. Even when he’s not actually bigger or stronger, he still manages to look the part. That discrepancy won’t exist at the NFL level, but that kind of profile excites any defensive coordinator.

One of the biggest things NFL scouts want to see from players who attend smaller schools is production. Being a superior athlete is great, but it doesn’t matter much if you don’t do anything with your athleticism. Jackson has the production numbers to back up his athleticism and solidify his status as a sleeper at edge rusher.

Throughout his career, Jackson has a total of 16 sacks and 28 tackles for loss. The majority of those came in his redshirt junior season. Jackson has improved upon his TFL and sack numbers every season. He’s also produced those numbers while struggling with injuries throughout his career. A healthy season could potentially see those numbers skyrocket. That kind of ceiling is what separates a good small-school college player from one with NFL potential.

Perhaps the most exciting thing about Jackson, and what makes him a sleeper edge rusher for the 2021 NFL Draft, is his potential. Jackson is obviously raw as a pass rusher and has not fully realized his growth. He’s gotten by largely on his speed and power and has put up some rather impressive numbers with that combination. Once Jackson learns the finer points of pass rush technique and coming up with a pass rush plan, he has the potential to be dangerous in the entire college football world. 

What needs to improve?

There’s a ton to like about Tarron Jackson’s game, and a lot to suggest Jackson is a sleeper at edge rusher for the 2021 NFL Draft. But he’s far from a perfect prospect, and he doesn’t come without some significant risk. A lot of teams may be turned off of Jackson due to his injury history.

Jackson missed all but four games in his freshman year and took a medical redshirt. His redshirt freshman season again saw him miss time due to injury, missing the final four games of the season. Though he didn’t miss any time his redshirt sophomore season, he fought through a leg injury all season. All of those injuries could amount to being issued a red flag from scouts. If Jackson is viewed as “injury prone,” it could tank his NFL Draft stock.

Looking beyond things out of his control and into Jackson’s actual game, there are some chinks in the armor. The biggest among them is his lack of flexibility. Being able to bend around the edge isn’t necessarily a requirement to be an effective pass rusher at the next level, but not being able to do so makes the job a lot harder. Jackson admitted on the Inside the NFL Prospects podcast that he needs to improve this area, and it’s something he’s been working on in the offseason.

The other big area where Jackson must improve if he wants to be a high draft pick — and he knows it — is in his run defense. If Jackson is going to be seen as anything more than a sub-package pass rusher, he must improve at setting the edge and become more effective as a run defender. His lack of run defense was put on full display against Georgia Southern last season.

Georgia Southern is a run-heavy team. To such a degree that starting quarterback Shai Werts attempted only eight passes the entire game, completing four of them. The Eagles kept the ball on the ground for the majority of their overtime game against the Chanticleers, and Jackson never looked comfortable. Most of his other games, you see a player who is explosive off the line — powerful when engaged with blockers, and a force to be reckoned with.

The Georgia Southern game was the complete antithesis of that. Jackson never looked comfortable against the Eagles. To such a degree that I would have thought he was fighting through injury during the game. From his stance before the snap all the way through the play, something was off. 

Jackson knows his run defense has to improve. If it does, and he puts everything together on top of his impressive production in his career thus far, he’s a major sleeper at the EDGE rusher position that you need to about in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Chris Spooner is an NFL Draft contributor for PFN. You can follow him on Twitter @CSpoonerNFL.