Lane Jackson hopes what he has learned playing linebacker at the Naval Academy will prepare him for a job after graduation -- and not just an ordinary one. Jackson aspires to be a Navy SEAL, part of a highly skilled and selective maritime force that conducts missions against targets that larger forces cannot approach undetected.
"I want to be part of a hard-nosed group of guys who are tough and think every play is their last and who never quit," Jackson said. "The SEALs are very similar to a football team because they use controlled aggression to get the job done -- just like the defense we have at Navy."
On Saturday afternoon in front of a national television audience, the senior inside linebacker will be counted on heavily to lead Navy (5-0) to its first victory over Notre Dame (4-2) since 1963. The Irish have defeated the Midshipmen an NCAA-record 40 straight times.
Two days later, Jackson will don a different uniform -- his service dress -- and be interviewed by a panel of SEALs, vying for one of 23 billets to attend the unit's training school at Coronado Naval Base in San Diego.
"This is the biggest week of my life," Jackson said. "I'm definitely nervous because I've put in a lot of time in both football and trying to become a SEAL. I think I've prepared for becoming a SEAL since I got to Navy. I want to jump out of planes and shoot machine guns and do whatever it takes to be part of the team."
Jackson has no idea what his chances are of getting the opportunity to try out for Navy's elite group of Special Warfare operators, but he's already overcome long odds on the football field.
At 5 feet 11 and 217 pounds, Jackson is one of the smallest at his position in Division I-A.
"I'm sure when the other team looks at the roster, they laugh," said Jackson, who teams with senior linebacker Bobby McClarin, just 5-11 and 225 pounds, to play a major role in Navy's 3-4 scheme.
Jackson made a team-high 12 tackles in a 24-21 victory over Air Force and has a team-high 51 tackles -- 21 unassisted -- this season, putting him just ahead of McClarin, who has 49.
A safety has led the Midshipmen in tackles every year since 1996, when linebacker Clint Bruce had a team-high 125.
"Lane has played really well. He's been very productive," Coach Paul Johnson said. "I think Lane's one of the guys that has maximized his ability. I don't know if I've seen a guy that works at it harder or plays harder. . . . I think [Lane and Bobby] are a big part of [our success]. I think we run better overall as a team and that helps. You know you've made progress when your two leading tacklers are your linebackers instead of your free safety."
Navy's defense has had success this year, but it has come against teams that have a combined record of 9-17. Notre Dame is led by freshman running back Darius Walker, who is averaging 87.2 yards per game and has three touchdowns in five games.
"Notre Dame is athletic and they've got a great tight end, a great running back -- they're just Notre Dame," McClarin said.
The job of stopping the Irish falls largely on Jackson and McClarin. The best friends regularly compete with each other, to see who makes the most tackles, lifts the most in the weight room or wins video games.
"Lane's a tenacious competitor, and he's smart and never quits at anything," McClarin said. "You should see us play college football on PlayStation 2; it gets pretty intense."
But right now, they are too busy preparing for a much bigger -- and more talented -- Notre Dame squad that has won three of its past four games, including a 23-15 victory over Stanford last Saturday. A Navy victory would equal its best start since 1979.
"The thing that we have to do is try to make sure to make all those guys play assignment football, all of them, inside guys and everybody," Johnson said. "We have to pick our one-on-one battles. We aren't going to win too many one-on-one battles against them and I know that. . . . Who knows? We aren't ever going to be on the same talent level as Notre Dame, but sometimes the best players don't win, the best team does. We have to try and get a plan and go try and be the best team."