FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- The legend of J.C. Jackson's ball skills started well before this season.
As a rookie last year, the cornerback played 46.8% of the Patriots' defense snaps. That was the fourth most among cornerbacks on the team. Despite the limited playing time, Jackson finished the 2018 season tied for second on the Patriots with three interceptions.
He made sure to remind his teammates that he used to be a wide receiver.
"He said he played receiver in college," Stephon Gilmore said. "You can tell when the ball in the air, he knows how to play the ball really well. He can run. He's strong. I think that's what separates him from a lot of players."
Like most folklore, Jackson's tales of his receiver play aren't entirely true. At Maryland, he didn't catch a single pass. Prior to that, at Riverside Community College, he exclusively played cornerback. The truth is that Jackson was a receiver growing up and starred at Immokalee (Fla.) High School, setting eight school receiving records.
A 6-foot-0 four-star recruit, he was considered one of the top playmakers in the 2014 class. Jackson even earned Under Armour All-American honors. He transitioned to defensive back for the first time in college. As everyone saw last season, Jackson has solid hands for a cornerback. This season, the second-year player's been even better.
Jackson enters the final week of the regular season with five interceptions -- tied for the fourth most in the NFL. This 24-year-old is soft spoken and hasn't said much to the media this season. Instead, Jackson lets his play on the field doing all his talking.
"I still have got a lot of work to improve on, room to improve," Jackson said.
After playing 395 defensive snaps last year, Jackson has played 613 defensive snaps (62.5%) this season. Jackson has played the sixth most defensive snaps on the Patriots. He's played the second most for the cornerbacks behind Pro Bowler Gilmore and third most among all defensive backs (also behind Devin McCourty).
With increased responsibility and playing time, Jackson has also been tested more this season. The results have been eye opening.
Quarterbacks have a 28.4 passer rating when targeting Jackson, according to Pro Football Reference. That's the NFL's best mark out of all cornerbacks. Gilmore, who has drawn tougher assignments, is second in the league with a 35.7 passer rating. Jackson has allowing completions on just 50.9% of the passes thrown in his direction. He also hasn't allowed a touchdown this season.
Jackson credits his improved play to his veteran teammates around him.
"It just makes you play at a certain level," Jackson said. Being around a bunch of guys who have been in the game for a while, who play at a high level, it just really helps you play better as well."
Jackson also admits that his confidence has grown as his paying time has increased. That's been evident in his play over the second half of the NFL season. In the first eight games, Jackson had two interceptions to go with five passes defended. Over the last seven games, he has three interceptions and seven passes defended.
Bill Belichick said he's seen an improvement with Jackson's fundamentals that has help cut down on penalties as well.
"J.C. is way ahead of where he was last year," Belichick said. "He's done a really good job in his growth and development and improvement on the little fundamental things of his game. He was getting some penalties early in the year and he's really worked hard to eliminate those penalties and some of the unnecessary grabbing that made it a little bit of a problem for him earlier in the year."
Jackson's tales of his receiver play came up two weeks ago in Cincinnati when he intercepted Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton twice. As he explained, however, he's not satisfied with his play. He's having fun in Foxborough, but knows he has room to grow. That'll benefit both him and the Patriots.
"Just continue to work on my fundamentals and technique. Just grinding and studying, doing what I've been doing," Jackson said. "It's just a blessing to be here, man. I just love doing what I'm doing -- and at a high level."