Everything about the Justin Jackson situation is unusual.
True freshmen rarely play under Pat Fitzgerald. Recruits as touted as the four-star Glenbard North standout are seldom inserted right into the fold, especially with an established senior topping the depth chart.
But Jackson has been heavily featured in Northwestern training camp, taking carries between the tackles as well as fielding passes in the slot. He busted off several big runs at the team’s official scrimmage in Kenosha, and the staff has praised his ability to find holes and shift directions all summer. The Wildcats have a clear pecking order at running back with Treyvon Green, Warren Long and Stephen Buckley in place, but it’s becoming apparent that Jackson will have a definite role in the offense this year.
“It’s tough. They’re probably coaching me a little bit harder now,” Jackson told PW Wednesday. “They’re throwing a lot of stuff at me. They’re being patient, but they’re still trying to get me ready for the season.”
A Justin Jackson fueled by urgency is especially enticing. Venric Mark's departure is nightmarish for fans, while Jackson's upside is maximized by the optimism that he can step in sooner than expected. Jackson tallied Madden-like stats of 9.1 yards per carry and 38 touchdowns in just 11 games last fall. But the adjustment to the next level has not been seamless, he admits. For the first time in a while, Jackson is lining up against “guys that are as good or better” than him, and he cites lapses in technique as his biggest weakness thus far.
This season provides some unique opportunities for Jackson. By nature he’ll have to be a bigger factor in the passing game than he was at Glenbard, and with bigger, more experienced backs available for pass protection, Jackson will be deployed mostly as a home run hitter. Most of all, this is a chance to keep expectations fluid and balanced.
“Everyone’s fighting for those middle of the pack carries, but if I’m just worrying about where I am in the depth chart, I’m being selfish,” he said.
Jackson’s first-year situation is ideal the more you think about it. If nothing else, 2014 functions as a rough trial to get acclimated, tease potential and supplement a unit in need. Anything else is a welcomed but unexpected plus. Jackson has a chance to mature faster than expected, one of the most encouraging things to come out of camp this summer.