Justin Jackson committed to Northwestern in May 2013. And everyone predicted that something great would happen. The four-star Glenbard North (IL) running back barely thought of going anywhere else. This became the natural fit, which was perfect at a school that so badly needed him.
You might often see four-star players waver — especially during the 1-7 Big Ten meltdown the season before he arrived on campus. You often see four-star players tail off and get lazy in their senior seasons. But, of course, this four-star player only improved and won multiple player of the year awards.
There is great, and there is extraordinary. We’re watching the latter — someone who clearly never viewed himself as a guy who spent his first year at Northwestern improving. We rarely see this at NU. Just last year, only Matthew Harris saw significant action as a true freshman, and that came with some difficult late-season games.
Nothing about this has been normal. This is a reflection of the improved recruiting at Northwestern. You can still tell around here when a truly great player steps on the field. “That guy can play,” Tony Jones said almost immediately. It was so sudden and we couldn’t have even imagined something like this. The Wildcats shy away from starting young guys, preferring seniority and loyalty almost to a fault.
Yet from the moment he took the practice field, he burned his own redshirt. Every time he slipped past defenders, absorbed contacts and fought for extra yardage, it was the product of someone who knows he’s capable of playing right away. It takes as much mindset as it does skill. To play at NU as a true freshman, you need to force your way in or, sometimes, play strong special teams. This was not normal.
It’s easy to consider this hyperbolic until you think about how much Justin Jackson has excelled since arriving at NU. His development only accelerated as the season began. He wasn’t even on the depth chart in week one, with Warren Long ahead. Now, they just chase him, because they’re good but he can turn an entire program around.
Because let’s face it: By week five you can almost see Justin Jackson becoming an all-time great. Forget about the three picks from Godwin and continued passion on defense. This team does not beat Wisconsin without his skill and consistency as part of the offense. He was the assassin.
Across the sideline from All-American Melvin Gordon, Jackson asserted himself. He ran for a career-high 162 yards on 33 carries — showing durability and the coaches’ collective trust in his game. He does something you rarely see. A lot of guys could pull out 100-yard games, but even with an average offensive line, Jackson shattered it. He plays with the confidence and skill of a senior.
When I tweeted midway through the fourth quarter that Jackson could be an “all-time great,” people agreed. There was no dissent because there’s no denying that we might never have seen talent like this at NU before. He’s defying just about every low expectation.
Imagine this: Now at 396 rushing yards through five games, He’s almost on pace to break 1,000 in his freshman year. In the process, he’s leading the offense of a Big Team that suddenly finds itself fighting for a title. At 2-0, with games against Michigan, Illinois, Purdue, Iowa and Minnesota on the schedule, they might just have a shot.
There have been flashier performances — like Godwin and Walker — that can almost make you forget about a true star. With Justin Jackson, you have a future all-time great. And he’s only getting greater.