Fred Jackson looks to build on last year

Bryan Sullivan

It’s the end of his second practice of the 2008 Buffalo Bills training camp, and running back Fred Jackson is signing autographs and laughing with fans.

It’s something most NFL players take for granted.

But for someone like Jackson, whose path to the top football league in the world was anything but traditional, moments like this remind him that his hard work has paid off.

Jackson went from a standout in the United Indoor Football and NFL Europa Leagues, to an NFL practice squad player, to a starter with the Bills by the end of last season.

Jackson made the most of his opportunity, rushing for 300 yards and averaging 5.17 yards per carry in eight games last year.

“I was on cloud nine the whole season last year,” Jackson said. “Just being able to play in the last few games was the icing on the cake. Once I got the opportunity it was a blessing and I just wanted to take advantage of it.”

Jackson entered training camp as an afterthought last year, buried on the depth chart behind draft picks Marshawn Lynch and Dwayne Wright and veteran Anthony Thomas.

He used a strong preseason to secure a roster spot, scoring three touchdowns in four games.

Jackson earned his first career start against Washington on Dec. 2, recording 151 total yards. One week later, Jackson rushed for 100 yards in a game for the first time in his NFL career with 115 in a win over Miami.

“He had a tremendous preseason, he showed up and made plays,” said Eric Studesville, Buffalo running backs coach. “I knew that if he got his opportunity he would shine.”

His performance on the field wasn’t the only thing that impressed coaches and teammates last season. Jackson spent plenty of time in the film room and had a strong presence in the locker room.

“He is definitely a guy who has been working his tail off,” said Robert Royal, Bills tight end. “He works hard and does all the things you should do. He stays late and does all the things coaches expect out of him.”

Jackson’s pro football career began with the Sioux City (Iowa) Bandits of the UIFL in 2005. The league features eight teams primarily from the Midwest.

Jackson had a memorable one-year stint with the Bandits, rushing for an UIFL record 1,770 yards and 53 touchdowns. He was named league MVP and offensive player of the year.

Jackson then played in NFL Europa in 2006 with the Rhein Fire and led the team with 731 yards rushing.

“It was a great experience,” Jackson said about his UIFL days. “It was a small team in a small town. I still go back. I would recommend anyone trying to get into football to experience it.”

He played his high school football at Lamar in Arlington, Texas. Jackson said it was common to have more than 15,000 fans in the stands for a game.

Jackson played for Division III Coe College, a 1,300 student school in Cedar Rapids, Iowa after high school. He rushed for 1,702 yards and 29 touchdowns his senior year.

“It’s a small school, so you knew everybody,” Jackson said about Coe. “Everybody who knows you comes to the game. It’s a unique feeling. Once you go back to school you talk to your friends and professor’s about the games. It was a good experience.”

Jackson is hoping to have 1,000 all-purpose yards this season. The second-year player should be a key piece in helping the Bills return to the playoffs for the first time since the 1999 season.

“I think it’s a little bit different start for Fred because we have already seen him and we have started to game plan and we know what we want to do with him,” Studesville said.

Bryan Sullivan can be reached at (585) 394-0770 ext. 273 or