Jackson and Lopez

By Eric Wein

Arizona Daily Wildcat

When it came time to take the field, Akil Jackson ran out to the mound and Chris Lopez jogged to his spot in the outfield.

Standing out on that small field with their gloves ready, they were like any other young athletes exuberant and nervous, glad just to be playing, really.

As Little Leaguers on their local all-star team in Auburn, Calif., the two began competing on the same playing field around the age of 13, but these days they're teammates on a different field.

Jackson and Lopez, who are seniors on the UA football team, have excelled as starters on the Wildcat defense this season. A linebacker during 1993, Jackson was converted over the offseason into a defensive lineman, where he has 26 tackles despite injuries. Lopez, who is second on the team with 35 tackles, has been a pleasant surprise at flex line

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backer after filling in the last four games for the injured Thomas Demps.

So, after playing baseball and football as youngsters and eventually at Placer High School, Lopez and Jackson have risen from small-town obscurity to big- time prosperity.

"We might be on a play together or when he makes a play I congratulate him it's just like we're in high school," Lopez said. "It's a flash from the past."

Jackson watched Lopez sign his letter of intent to play at Arizona, hoping eventually to join his high school teammate.

After arriving at the UA, Lopez decided to forfeit his redshirt status in 1991 because of the Wildcats injury problems.

In his first college game, he realized things would be different.

"It was a big step up," Lopez said. "My senior year in high school, the last game of the season was the biggest crowd I'd ever faced and that was 3,000 in our rival game. Then I came here, our first game was at Ohio State and we went in there with 91,000 people. We said, 'Oh God,' when we looked at all these people screaming at us and throwing stuff."

Lopez fought injuries and was a backup linebacker and special teams player for most of his UA career until this season. When the Wildcats called on his help in the Stanford game this year, he responded and has continued to do so ever since.

"I have great respect for Chris," defensive coordinator Larry Mac Duff said. "He's played real solid football the last four games. He's made a real positive contribution as far as the guys playing well."

He has had few problems tracking down running backs for tackles but Lopez still gets teased by his teammates about what they call a lack of speed.

"They've given me flak about it because over the summer I put on weight and it slowed me down a little bit," Lopez said. "I've lost a few pounds since then and I think I've gotten faster but they still give me trouble saying, 'Oh, you ran a five flat.'"

He smiles while pondering his success, realizing that a backup has become a dominant player on a prominent defense.

"When you get in a game, you get in that zone you really don't think about it," he said. "Afterwards, you look back and say, 'Whoa, I did well.' I'm just proud of myself. I proved it to myself that I could do it and that's the most important thing to me."

When Lopez landed at Arizona, Jackson had already gone the way of Sacramento (Calif.) City College. After receiving accolades as a JC player, he was recruited for a Division I school and Lopez was a further incentive for him coming to the UA.

Jackson has been no slouch either, being named Pacific 10 Conference player of the week after the Washington State game.

"His performance has been outstanding considering he's been injured," Mac Duff said. "A year ago he was a big play guy for us."

Jackson has constantly found himself either with the ball or around it. He had five fumble returns and an interception in the Fiesta Bowl last year and had recovered a fumble this year, sometimes appearing more like a fullback or tight end than a defensive player.

"Some people say I have great ball awareness," said Jackson, who has yet to score a touchdown. "I think some of that is luck. I want to score one, put one in the end zone before the season is over."

Despite his intimidating presence around ball carriers, Jackson is amicable away from the field.

"I'm goofing around with everyone and I think people respect me for that," Jackson said. "I'm not an egomaniac at all. I get embarrassed when people ask me for an autograph. I don't see myself as the kind of person you ask for an autograph."

As for Jackson's feelings on playing with his childhood buddy, he couldn't be happier.

"I never knew that again we'd play side-by-side," Jackson said. "We had good times in high school and now we continue our good times here."

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