CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (CBS19 SPORTS) --  On or off the field, Nick Jackson has become the emotional heartbeat for Virginia football.

"Really proud of, one, how he comes to practice every single day," head coach Tony Elliott said, "He's consistent in his demeanor. He doesn't change. Very, very energetic. Also he is not afraid to challenge his teammates when they need to do better."

A few times already this season Jackson has had to lead from the sidelines, after being suspended for the first half against Duke due to a targeting call at Syracuse and again when he injured his knee in the first half against Louisville.

"I've learned you don't just have to lead by playing, by physically being apart of the game," Jackson said, "I want them to know even when I'm not playing that I'm still going to be leading, I'm still going to be with them, I'm still going to be their biggest fans and supporters, so we can try to get this thing turned around."

Established as one of the best tackles in the country -- currently ranked No. 13 in the country for total tackles after leading the ACC a year ago -- Jackson has his own group of loyal supporters, his family, who have rarely missed a game traveling from Atlanta every week.

"I don't even think they really know how much it means to me, but just before every game I try to look at them, try to find out where they are and after them just seeing them, getting a hug."

This week Jackson returns the favor by playing his first career game in his hometown on Thursday night against Georgia Tech. Elliott said Jackson told the team if they had any unused tickets to pass them his way.

"If we were doing this interview four years ago would I have told you I expect him to have 300 tackles, probably not," Nick's dad Doug Jackson said, "I think that's one of the reasons, a big reason Nick is where he is, is that we've been blessed to have a huge village of support over the years and a big community that's been very supportive."

One fan who's always watched from afar is Nick's grandma Jean Sanders.

"My grandma, she's amazing," Jackson said, "Before every game and after every game would text me, call me. If I had a game she didn't like then she would basically say the refs were terrible, basically if we lost, the refs were terrible, if I didn't make a tackle the refs were terrible and I was getting held."

During Jackson's four years at UVA, Sanders has battled cancer refusing to let go until she saw Nick through to his senior season.

"One of the things that she told him or that she said to her family, while her health was declining was she wanted to make it until week one this year so she could see Nick play," Doug Jackson said, "And I know her desire to see Nick play was a huge motivator for her and an inspiration for her, kept her hanging on for awhile."

Grandma watched Jackson help lead the Cavaliers to a win over Richmond in the season opener with a career-high 14 tackles, but a day before Virginia faced Illinois, Jean passed away.

"It was emotional time, the whole week was emotional because we kind of knew it was about to happen," Nick said.

"It's tough, so I think you want to be there and support him as much as you can, it's his first time really going through that," Doug said, "The first time that he's lost a person that he was that close to."

Jackson was born in Chicago, Illinois and first met his Grandma a few hours away from Champaign and that day at Memorial Stadium, he could feel her again.

"I told the trainers before, I'm probably going to need a lot of rehab after this game because I'm about to just fly around, I've got a lot of pent up stuff going on," Jackson said.

Nick finished with nine tackles and a sack in a loss to Illinois, but his grandma continues to stay with Jackson on gameday as he writes "Grandma" on his wrist tape every game.

"Just playing for her honestly, just every single game I'll look up and think about her," Jackson said, "I'm talking to her during the games honestly. I just know she's watching because she was one of my idols."

As Jackson returns to his hometown of Atlanta a few weeks later, he is reminded of the person who showed him what strength is.

"She put up a heck of a fight and she wasn't backing down to anything, so that's why we say her blood, her genetics, she doesn't back down from anything," Jackson said, "If I could be half as strong as her one day then I'd be a pretty strong person."