The Michigan Wolverines entered the 2005/06 season with what many described as an embarrassment of riches at the running back position. Mike Hart was coming off of a Big Ten Freshmen of the year campaign, Kevin Grady was considered one of the top prep backs in the country, and Max Martin was thought to be more physically talented than either of the aforementioned two. Lost in the excitement over those three talented backs was the hardworking and unassuming veteran in the bunch, Jerome Jackson.
It's often forgotten that heading into last year the 5-11, 200-pounder had all but secured the job as Chris Perry's successor. Unfortunately, after he started off the fall off in impressive fashion he suffered an injury during a camp scrimmage that sidelined him for a few weeks. The Wolverines were desperately searching for a running game early in the season, and Jackson returned to try that fill the void, but he still wasn't quite 100%. With his injury sapping the burst that made him effective, he was unable to perform the way he was accustomed to. That opened the door for Michael Hart to put his skills on display…and the rest, as they say, is history.
The odds of any significant playing time for Jackson this season looked bleak, but the Saginaw native stayed motivated. That proved beneficial when the coaching staff called on his veteran presence when Hart was injured early in the Iowa game a few weeks back. Jackson stepped in to give the Wolverines a huge lift with big a 19-yard run, on his way to an 11-carry 44-yard effort that was highlighted by scoring the game winning touchdown in overtime. For good measure, Jackson followed that up this past Saturday with a career-best 24-rush, 105-yard showing against Northwestern.
"Jerome Jackson…you can’t say enough for him," Michigan Coach Lloyd Carr said after the game. "He had tough yardage in there. He is tough, and for the most part, he comes out the other end even though he’s not the biggest guy. He leverages the football. He secures the football. You can’t put a measure on what he has given this team. His teammates love him so everybody is happy that he has gotten an opportunity to play some."
For Jackson, his seamless transition from sideline observer to game-time contributor is not a surprise. It's something that he has been groomed for. He just needed the chance to show it. "Coach Carr is a great guy," Jackson said. "He always kept confidence in me, and I thank him for that. Each week I just tried to prepare as if I was the starter. Coach Jackson always preaches that to us. He tells every back in the room to prepare like he was the starter. So I knew if I got a chance to get in there that I was going to do my best."
Without definite playing time as the carrot for all of his hard work, it would have been easy for Jackson to become discouraged. Fortunately for Michigan, that never happened. According to Jackson, the support he gets from his family and his faith had a great deal to do with that. "I always kept my faith," said Jackson. "I'm a strong believer. I'm thanking God every day just for these opportunities. I'm also thanking my coaches. I always hung in there and I always believed that my time would come. Of course that's hard to do when you want to play so bad and you're on the sidelines, but I have a strong support staff. My father stays on my case constantly. My brother, Terry Jackson … he has been through the same thing I was going through, when he was at Minnesota. He always kept his head up. In his third season there he got his chance, and he rushed for 1,300 yards! He always said to me, 'Man, your time will come ... your time will come. Just keep on pushing.' That's what I did."
Now with two positive efforts under his belt, Jackson feels he is back into the swing of things. He also feels that he will only get better the rest of the way. "I always had confidence, but you naturally gain more confidence the more snaps you get," he said. "The more time you get on the field, you feel more comfortable. At this position, you have to be out there to get into the zone … to get into a groove. The more I'm out there the more I'm getting into a groove and feeling like my old self."
The spark Jackson has provided the team recently has been invaluable, but with
Mike Hart healing up over the next few weeks for the home stretch, another 20
carry game probably isn't in the cards. That, however, is not a problem. Just
being able to contribute to the team is enough for Jackson. If that means he
has to get into his groove in fewer carries, so be it. "It keeps me on
toes," Jackson said of not knowing how much he'll play on a week to week
basis. "I always have to be ready. I love it. I love how the coaches are
playing us. I told Coach Jackson at the beginning of the season that I was going
to force him to play all of us. He is playing us and I just thank him for the
opportunity he is giving all of us to go out there and get some runs."