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Jackson set to start

He is close to 100 percent. He has been named starter. He has even taken his first hit.

The question in today's Gator Bowl is how long Notre Dame's Jarious Jackson will play and if the senior's rehabilitated right knee has the same pre-injured oomph to outmaneuver, outscramble and outrun, if necessary, the hungry Georgia Tech defense.

"Right now, I'm as close to 100 percent as I'm going to get," said Jackson, a mobile quarterback who hopes to lead Notre Dame to its first bowl win since 1994. "It's real loose now, I'm running whatever percentage it is, I'm going to give it."

Traveling to Jacksonville, where kickoff is scheduled for 12:30 today at Alltel Stadium, Jackson and Irish coach Bob Davie were skeptical he'd have anything to give.

Six weeks ago, in the waning seconds of a career game (13 of 21 passes for 276 yards, 2 TDs, 80 yards rushing) against Louisiana State, Jackson partly tore the medial collateral ligament on a freak play.

Leading 39-34, but pinned at their 10 with eight seconds left, the Irish planned to take a safety and get the free kick. Jackson was supposed to keep the snap and run out of the end zone, but the play turned sour. LSU linebacker Arnold Miller barreled through the line unblocked and blindsided Jackson.

The sack, low but clean, knocked Jackson out of the regular season and the Irish out of Bowl Championship Series consideration, as Jackson-less Notre Dame lost to Southern California the next Saturday. It might have been the most expensive safety ever, as a spot in the Gator Bowl equals roughly $10-million less than a BCS game.

Jackson didn't need surgery, but he did wear a brace for the next four weeks.

Meanwhile, fans waited. And worried. Jackson, the second-biggest name to come out of Tupelo, Miss., since Elvis, doesn't have the name recognition of Joe Montana, Joe Theismann, Tony Rice or Ron Powlus, but he has the strong arm and nimble moves that make him a threat through the air and on the ground.

Few expected the Irish to turn in a nine-win season, especially after going 7-6 the previous season. Many credit Jackson, a rough diamond who polished himself thoroughly with four close victories, 1,740 passing yards and 16 total touchdowns.

Jackson was expected to return in time for today's matchup, but no one was definite. Davie said he wanted to make the right decision regarding his star, since Jackson has opted to return to South Bend for a fifth year.

In practice this week, he showed the ability. He was confident, loose and focused, and Davie named him the starter.

Jackson took his first hit this week _ a double undercut from two freshmen fooling around near him.

(The freshmen, Davie said smiling, still have their scholarships.)

"I was surprised to see Jarious go head over tails," Georgia Tech coach George O'Leary said. "I was glad to see him get up."

How many times Jackson will have to pull himself up today will be key.

Tech is used to practicing against speedy, quick-cutting QBs, because it has one in Joe Hamilton. That makes Jackson less of a wild card, but still a threat.

"Jarious is a great quarterback," Tech safety Jerry Caldwell said. "He makes a lot of quick cuts, big plays . . . and he can also pick the ball up and run.

"It's going to be real important for us to just keep him and their offense on the field."

No one knows for sure how much Jackson will play. He will start, but earlier this week Davie said his backups, senior Arnaz Battle and junior Eric Chappell, also will play.

"One thing I think we've done a good job of is, we don't always know who it's going to be, but someone always steps up and gets it done for us," Irish tailback Autry Denson said. "If we play like we know we can, that will happen again."

AT A GLANCE

WHO: Notre Dame (9-2) vs.

Georgia Tech (9-2).

LINE: Georgia Tech by 2{.

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