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Then: Bye 'Bama. Now: Bye bench

For a lifelong Gator fan who defied family, friends, expectations and the state of Alabama to attend Florida, it was a little bit too much to take.

Jackson grew up in Hoover, a suburb that sits a stone's throw away from Birmingham. He was a Parade All-American whom Rivals listed as the No. 2 receiver in the nation coming out of Hoover High.

Yet there he was last season, a little-known freshman alternating between a few stints on special teams and warming the bench.

"It was really tough on me going out there only on special teams," Jackson said. "I got some experience for the game a little bit, but it was real tough not going out there and playing my original position.

"You leave the state of Alabama and everybody is mad at you. Then you come in expecting to play," he said. "You know the talent that you have to go out there and help the team so it's hard when you can't go out there and do it."

Jackson suffered in silence. The depth chart included three senior receivers _ Carlos Perez, Kelvin Kight and tight end Ben Troupe. The coaching staff made it clear Jackson would have to wait his turn and he understood. But it didn't make it any less frustrating.

His parents, Watson and Icaye Jackson, told him to pray, be patient, wait for his chance, and that it would get better.

It's a lesson many freshman athletes have to learn.

"All of them have to deal with (the fact) they are not the guy and that's hard for an 18-, 19-year-old kid to accept when he's been the guy his whole life," Florida offensive coordinator Larry Fedora said. "From Pop Warner all the way through high school he's been the man. And now he's not the man and he's having to deal with that competition every single day. And it just takes a little bit of time and a little maturity. There's been some great players come through this university that haven't played as freshmen, haven't played as sophomores, but went on to be great players."

Jackson hopes to be one of those. Though he has only two receptions in two games this season, both were big plays. He got everyone's attention Saturday when he caught a tipped pass from quarterback Chris Leak and took it 81 yards for a touchdown. He has 60 yards per catch.

"Getting this (past year) under his belt really helped him a lot getting comfortable in the offense," Leak said. "He progressed well. He just kept learning and kept working harder. He's gaining more confidence in himself, he's going out there and making plays."

Jackson, 19, played in all 13 games in 2003 on special teams and saw action in four games as a receiver for 144 plays. He is one of only eight receivers in school history to score a touchdown as a freshman, a 29-yarder against San Jose State.

But Jackson believed he was capable of so much more.

"I was thinking about leaving or transferring to somewhere else," he said. "But the guys kept talking to me, helping me out and gave me motivation to stay here and help the team."

One of those teammates was Ciatrick Fason, the junior running back who considered quitting earlier in his career because he was unhappy with his playing time. Fason could see Jackson getting discouraged. He could feel what he was going through. And he wasn't about to let him make a mistake Fason believed he'd live to regret.

"I saw it coming," said Fason, now a starter. "Chad was in a situation like I was last year. He talked to Coach (Ron) Zook in the summer, and he talked about how he never had an opportunity. I told him to be patient, his opportunity is going to come. When we were in the locker room before we ran out of the tunnel against Tennessee, I told him, "You want your opportunity? Coach is going to play you. Now you got to step up.' He stepped up.

"I think now he's starting to look like he's our go-to receiver because he's starting to step up and make big plays at the right time."

The season is still young, and Jackson realizes he has a lot to prove. He'll continue to play special teams _ his 47-yard kickoff return in the season opener is the team's longest this season _ and he hopes Leak keeps finding him in the open field for more touchdowns.

"It has been real exciting for me," he said. "This is something that I've been waiting for since I first got here. I was highly recruited coming out of Alabama. I've got to live up to my name and help the team out."