SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. -- Cal Poly senior cornerback Asa Jackson will be playing alongside the likes of Alabama tight end Brad Smelley and quarterbacks Ryan Lindley of San Diego State, Kellen Moore of Boise State, Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State and Russell Wilson of Wisconsin.
"Playing in the Senior Bowl is a dream for me," said Jackson. "Being mentioned in the same breath as some of the other great seniors in the country is something that I will remember and cherish forever. I am so grateful that the Senior Bowl staff thought highly enough of my talent to represent them and this organization in this game. By playing in the game, I hope to dispel the stigma of small school players, that we can't compete with the bigger school guys."
Jackson will be one of just four players from a Football Championship Subdivision school in the 2012 Senior Bowl, scheduled for Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. A pair of NCAA Division II players also have been invited.
The 63rd annual game, to be televised by NFL Network at 1 p.m. PST, is one of football's premier pre-draft events and the nation's most unique football game. It annually features the country's best senior collegiate football stars and top NFL draft prospects on teams representing the North and South which are coached by the entire coaching staffs from two National Football League teams.
Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins staff will coach the South squad while Leslie Frazier and the Minnesota Vikings staff will coach the North. Jackson will play on the North squad.
The rosters include 24 players from the Big 10, 18 from the Big 12, 14 from the Atlantic Coast and 10 from the Pac 12.
Jackson, who has earned numerous postseason All-American and All-Great West Conference honors, is making a return trip to Mobile as he played his last game as a Mustang in Ladd-Peebles Stadium as well, securing seven tackles and one pass breakup in Cal Poly's 41-10 victory over South Alabama to wrap up a 6-5 season on Nov. 19.
"Cal Poly was a great place for me," Jackson said. "Not only did it allow me to start playing football early in my college career, but it also taught me numerous valuable lessons about what it takes to be a leader and a man.
"Cal Poly also taught me how to balance different challenges in my life (football and a challenging course load)," Jackson added. "I chose Cal Poly because it was the best option for what I wanted. The coaches wanted me to play football, an opportunity that I was not receiving from many other places."
Jackson (5-11, 190, Sacramento, Calif./Christian Brothers HS) is the second former Mustang to play in the Senior Bowl. Wide receiver Ramses Barden played in the 2009 Senior Bowl and, playing for the North squad, gained 20 yards on two receptions. The South team won 35-18. Three months later, Barden was drafted by the New York Giants in the third round (85th overall selection).
Players reported over the weekend for physicals and NFL testing. They met with their head coaches Sunday and the National Scouting Weigh-In was held Monday.
Both teams will practice Monday through Friday and the practice sessions are attended by over 800 general managers, head coaches, assistant coaches, scouts and other front office personnel from the 32 National Football League teams, making Mobile and the Senior Bowl the week-long host to a one-of-a-kind NFL Coaches Convention. All practice sessions also are being televised by NFL Network.
A preseason Buck Buchanan Award candidate (he finished 15th in final balloting released Jan. 6), Jackson notched 199 tackles in four seasons with the Mustangs along with eight interceptions (two in each season) and 32 pass breakups. In his senior campaign, Jackson had 54 tackles (31 solo) with two interceptions, both returned for touchdowns, and seven pass breakups.
Jackson also was among the nation's leaders in punt returns last fall, averaging 18.0 yards on eight returns with a long of 41 yards. He returned a theft against South Dakota State 47 yards for a touchdown in 2009 and now owns the school Division I record with his three interception returns for touchdowns. His 14.7 career punt return average is an all-time school mark.
Jackson's interception returns for touchdowns last fall spanned 100 yards against South Dakota State and 52 yards against Central Oklahoma.
"There are so many memorable moments at Cal Poly that it is hard to just choose one," Jackson said. "Winning my first ever college game at San Diego State (in 2008) for sure has to be one of them, but also something as simple as running out through that tunnel into a packed Alex G. Spanos Stadium every game is something I will never forget."
Last month, Jackson was one of 10 Mustangs selected to the All-Time Great West Conference Team. In addition, former Cal Poly head coach Rich Ellerson was named the team's coach. Ellerson guided Jackson and the Mustangs to their second NCAA FCS postseason playoff berth in 2008.
"I want to be remembered first and foremost as a player who gave his all," Jackson said. "I made a conscious effort every day, whether it be on the practice field or in the games, to bring my all day in and day out.
"I also want everyone to know how much I loved playing with and for my teammates and coaches. I will never forget this university and how many opportunities it has given me," Jackson added. "Cal Poly made chasing my dream of playing in the NFL possible, and for that I will be forever grateful. I will miss my teammates, past and present, more than anything, and look forward to coming back to Poly and seeing all the great things they are able to do in the future."
Jackson has been invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, scheduled for Feb. 22-28 in Indianapolis.
The other three players from FCS schools invited to play in the 2012 Senior Bowl are Furman cornerback Ryan Steed, Appalachian State wide receiver Brian Quick and Massachusetts tight end Emil Igwenagu. In addition, North Alabama cornerback Janoris Jenkins and Midwestern State offensive lineman Amini Silatolu have been invited from Division II schools
"We have a great history of players that arrived in Mobile as little-known prospects from smaller schools and eventually went on to huge success in the National Football League," Senior Bowl President and CEO Steve Hale said, noting in particular Walter Payton (Jackson State) and Ed "Too Tall" Jones (Tennessee State).
"We feel that this group has the potential to really shine in the national spotlight here in Mobile and we're excited about watching them compete alongside the nation's elite," Hale added.
In mid-December, Jackson became Cal Poly's first Associated Press Football Championship Subdivision All-American honoree in three years, named to the third team. He was a third-team Sports Network All-American in both 2010 and 2011.
Selected as Cal Poly's most valuable defensive player a month ago, Jackson landed a spot on College Sports Madness' All-American second team. Also this season, Jackson was placed on the Phil Steele Publications third team after returning both of his interceptions for touchdowns and was named to the College Sports Journal's inaugural FCS All-America team last week.
Jackson was named Football Championship Subdivision Punt Returner of the Year by College Football Performance Awards and was selected to the Beyond Sports Network FCS All-American third team.
Jackson earned Great West Freshman Player of the Year honors in 2008 and is the third Mustang to earn all-conference first-team honors four times and the first player in the history of the league to be honored four times on the first-team defense.
The other four-time all-conference first-team Mustangs were Barden and offensive lineman Stephen Field, both from 2005-08.
Photo of Asa Jackson defending Iowa wide receiver Marvin McNutt during practice Tuesday courtesy Mobile (Ala.) Press-Register