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From Employee of the Month to the playoff race: Khyree Jackson's long road to Oregon pays off
On his fifth school since 2017, the Maryland native has finally found a home in Oregon's ball-hawking secondary.
EUGENE — When Ebbony Jackson attends Saturday’s Oregon game against USC and watches her son, Khyree Jackson, start the game, she will no doubt be filled with pride.
Khyree’s taken a long route to get to Eugene, where nine games into the year he’s been the driving force behind Oregon’s ball-hawking secondary. The senior cornerback has two interceptions, 23 tackles, a pair of sacks and a growing list of ohhh that was nice plays here in his first season at Oregon, the fifth school he’s attended since graduating from Maryland’s Wise High School in 2017.
Though, if you ask Ebbony, she’s been pretty proud of Khyree along every step of the way.
She was proud of him when he left home for Arizona as a 17-year-old freshman.
She was proud of him when it didn’t work out west and he returned home to Maryland.
She felt the same as he then moved to Kansas, then Mississippi, then Alabama and now to Eugene, where they still talk nearly every day. Ebbony says her son might not like to admit, but he’s a momma’s boy. And mom knows how much work it took for him to get to this stage.
“He could have gone to a D-II school,” Ebbony said. “But he said, ‘That’s not the route for me. And because I didn’t do what I was supposed to do in high school, I’m going to do it the hard way.’”
There was never any doubting Khyree’s talent on the football field, but there once was a period where the “way” looked like a future back home in Upper Marlboro, Maryland.
Khyree only played two years of high school football, but it was pretty apparent with his 6-foot-3 frame that there was the makings of a potential Division I football player. He just didn’t have the grades to capitalize on Division I interest, which is what sent him the community college route to Arizona Western.
The Jacksons took a family trip out to San Diego, made the drive out to Yuma to drop Khyree off, and within a few weeks Khyree already knew it wasn’t right.
“I was 17 at the time. I was scared being that far away from home,” he said. “So I came back home.”
As some of Khyree’s childhood friends went on to start big-time college football careers, Khyree took a job at a local grocery store.
Ebbony was pretty darn happy with him when he was named Harris Teeter’s employee of the month. She even talked with him about making a career there. It’s a good company, Ebbony told Khyree. They had solid benefits.
But Khyree was thinking bigger. Competition had been his thing ever since qualifying for the Junior Olympics as a 5-year-old sprinter. He played basketball, football, ran the 100, 200, long jumped and high jumped — skills he picked up from mom, who ran track in college, and dad, who played football and basketball.
They were also skills that seemingly translated to the virtual world.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to be a like a (NBA) 2K league player or something like that,” Khyree said. “That’s what I do in my free time and I really didn’t see much of football in the future.”
That was fine by mom, who was set on supporting Khyree as he trained for a video game tournament in New York when football gave him one final opportunity from Fort Scott Community College head coach Kale Pick.
“I was really locking in on gaming, then coach emailed me to see if I wanted to play again,” Khyree said. “I decided I did.”
It’s a decision that’s involved a lot more than sitting on a couch. Khyree played a season at Fort Scott in Kansas as a receiver, then enrolled at East Mississippi, the school featured on the “Last Chance U” series on Netflix, to broaden his exposure as a defensive back when COVID hit.
Though his 2020 season was canceled, EMCC coach Buddy Stephens saw enough in practice to call Khyree the “best defensive back I have coached in all of my 19-year history.”
On Dec. 16, 2020, the former employee of the month signed with Alabama.
The Oregon Ducks needed some help.
Despite a 10-3 record in Dan Lanning’s first season and a win in the Holiday Bowl, the Ducks were coming off a year that saw its pass defense shredded for nearly 257 yards per game — the program’s worst total since 2016. To make matters worse, the Ducks were losing its few good players from said pass defense, with Christian Gonzalez soon to be a first-round draft pick.
The Ducks would ultimately bring in a bevy of players through the transfer portal, including Tysheem Johnson from Ole Miss and Evan Williams from Fresno State, but the gem of the group happened to reside a little bit disgruntled in Tuscaloosa.
See, it’s not that Khyree didn’t play in Alabama — in two seasons with the Crimson Tide, he played in 21 games and made one start. It’s just that he was never played to his potential. He totaled 14 tackles, mostly on special teams, and found himself taking more time than he expected getting up to speed.
"It was a lot of things I had to learn and grow from coming from the whole junior college thing and I think some of that might be the reason why everything didn’t work out,” Khyree said. “There were some things that I needed to learn and mature on coming as a junior college player to being at one of the top universities. It was a large stepping stone.”
Change, again, felt right. And there was already a relationship built with Lanning from the Oregon coach’s time at Georgia.
“When we went to visit Oregon back in December, it was instant for him,” Ebbony said. “It was, ‘Oh man, I like these players. I like these coaches. I think this is going to be a good fit.’
“And it’s been that way ever since.”
Maybe that’s the key. In Oregon, Khyree found a team that needed his football talent and a program that places more onus on building relationships within the building that any in recent Oregon memory.
“I told the coaches that the Khyree you get off the field is so much different that the one you get on the field,” Ebbony said. “He’s funny. He’s a jokester. He loves to hang out with his little brother when he’s in town. He’s just so outgoing and playful.”
But on the field, “Khyree is a straight dog,” Johnson said.
“He’s got the super competitive edge,” linebacker Jamal Hill said.
Added Lanning: “We’ve challenged him every week and he keeps stepping up to the challenge.”
The Ducks pass defense is now allowing 204 yards per game and the 5.4 yards per attempt opponents are averaging is the ninth-best mark in the nation. More important, as Oregon plays the potent USC offense led by Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams, the Ducks rarely get beat deep.
USC leads the nation with 15 passing plays of 40 yards or more. Oregon has allowed only three all season. And it’s going to be awfully fulfilling for Ebbony to watch in Autzen Saturday as her son runs around trying to pick off Williams, who Khyree grew up playing with, who took a far more functional route to college football stardom — one transfer.
Of course, Khyree has already banked a lifetime full of his mom’s gratitude.
“He did the one thing I asked: He got his degree,” she said. “That has been my proudest moment — that despite him going to three different junior colleges and now his second four-year institution, he still graduated.
“Yeah, I’m proud.”
— Tyson Alger, The I-5 Corridor