MIKE BURLEY / MBURLEY@STARBULLETIN.COM
Junior Leon Wright-Jackson is battling with Daniel Libre for the No. 1 running back spot on the UH depth chart.
Wright-Jackson is ready to show his stuff
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One of Leon Wright-Jackson's best moments at Hawaii was based on sound advice.
"My high school coach would tell me, 'Don't think so much,' " Wright-Jackson said. "He would tell me, 'The play's designed to go to the right, but if you see a hole in the middle or a cutback to the left, just do it and make sure you do it fast.' "
Trusting those instincts resulted in a 47-yard touchdown run against Louisiana Tech, in which Wright-Jackson followed his blockers, then spotted a seam in the defense and showed off the speed that helped him attain Parade All-America status at Pasco High in Washington.
Wright-Jackson reached the end zone just one other time that sophomore season and played sparingly down the stretch. This summer, he's approaching his second fall camp in Manoa more comfortable in his role.
Wright-Jackson and senior Daniel Libre top the depth chart in UH's one-back offense entering camp with David Farmer, Jayson Rego and Jake Heun also expected to compete for playing time this season.
"Right now, those guys (Wright-Jackson and Libre) are split at one," UH running backs coach Alex Gerke said. "It'll be a great battle between those two in fall camp. One day one guy will run with the ones, another day the other guy will run with the ones. We'll grade them out and whoever has the best day is going to keep running with the ones."
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It was just about a year ago and Leon Wright-Jackson was searching.
Searching for a fresh start following a detour in a promising college football career.
Searching for his niche on a new team.
Searching for the trust in his instincts evident in the highlight videos that made him a local YouTube sensation long before he arrived in Hawaii.
Now, after a sophomore season spent spinning his wheels much of the time, Wright-Jackson still finished second on the team in rushing and hopes to build on those numbers this fall.
"I think I have the confidence back that I was looking for," Wright-Jackson said.
Wright-Jackson enters fall camp sharing the top line of the depth chart with senior Daniel Libre in the Warriors' one-back offense and has packed on 10 pounds in the offseason to add more power to the speed he displayed in tantalizing flashes in his first season at UH.
In his return following a year away from the game, Wright-Jackson rushed for 219 yards and demonstrated his ability to accelerate in the open field in his two touchdowns, a 47-yarder at Louisiana Tech and a 33-yard sprint against Fresno State.
Still, he played sparingly in the final four games of UH's 12-1 season, carrying just once for a single yard in that span. But he expresses little frustration when reflecting on his first year with the Warriors, a product of the sense of perspective cultivated over a post-high school trek from Washington to Nebraska, then back to Washington, and eventually to Hawaii.
"I feel like I'm a completely different person," Wright-Jackson said. "When I first got into college I was a little jittery and letting things get the best of me. Now I'm calm and just taking it day-by-day."
Wright-Jackson, then simply Leon Jackson, blazed to Parade All-America honors at Pasco (Wash.) High School and was a prized part of Nebraska's recruiting class in 2005. But after shuffling among running back, safety and receiver, he found Cornhusker red an uncomfortable fit and left after one season.
He returned home to attend Columbia Basin Community College in Pasco, and after not playing in 2006, he received an unexpected opportunity to resume his career in Hawaii.
"It was something I had to prove, not to anybody, mostly just to myself, that I wasn't going to give up after I left Nebraska," he said.
"A lot of people probably thought that was it after I left Nebraska and nobody was interested in me. I kept looking for schools and I didn't think Hawaii even knew about me. But Coach (Rich) Miano called me and I jumped aboard as fast as possible because I knew the success the school was going through and I wanted to be a part of that."
It was also around that time that he added Wright to his name, both as a tribute to his late grandfather, Brady Wright, and as a signal of the next phase in his life.
"I looked at it as a new era," Wright-Jackson said. "I'm not going to look back in the past. There was some success, but the past is the past ... and I have to keep moving forward."
The chance to move forward has Wright-Jackson eagerly awaiting his second season at UH, even welcoming the grind of two-a days.
Wright-Jackson (who measures in at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds) regularly studies film of backs who share his attributes as a taller, long-striding runner -- such as Adrian Peterson, Darren McFadden, Eric Dickerson and Eddie George -- and implemented some of Peterson's training techniques to his regimen to build greater explosiveness into his game.
The prospect of the UH offense putting greater emphasis on the ground game under new coordinator Ron Lee also spurs Wright-Jackson in his offseason training and a tweak to the alignment could benefit him as a self-described "downhill runner."
"(The quarterback) being under center and being able to see the defense from that perspective is a lot better than being on the side of the quarterback in the shotgun," Wright-Jackson said. "It's going to open up some holes."
His growth over the past year has also included being a little easier on himself when reviewing his game.
"Coach (June) Jones would try to tell me, 'you're fine, just relax,' " Wright-Jackson said. "But for some reason I was just harder on myself. It was just me trying to critique myself way too much.
"It's maturing. It's a slow process, but I think I've got a hold of it now."