At the spearhead of the legacy in a long line of Northwestern running backs, one name stands alone: Justin Jackson.
Surely there were running backs that were faster like Damian Anderson and Venric Mark. And sure there were backs that were more powerful like Noah Herron and Jason Wright, and there were some that arguably had better feet, and shiftiness such as Darnell Autry and Tyrell Sutton; but no other running back in Northwestern history has brought the rare combination of all three.
In the Fall of 2014, Jackson stormed into Evanston as a 4-star recruit out of Glenbard North High School in Carol Stream, Illinois. Coming on the heels of an odd parting-of-the-ways with Venric Mark, the Wildcats were seeking a new play-maker in the backfield. Jackson cut, slashed, and ran people over on his way to an 1,154-yard and nine touchdown season as a true freshman. With a highly ranked (for Northwestern) recruiting class going into Jackson’s sophomore year, the future looked bright in Evanston.
The follow-up was a 1,524-yard, 15 touchdown performance en route to Northwestern’s first 10-win season since 1995. Everything appeared to be looking up for this veteran Wildcats team as Jackson began his Junior season. A storm of injuries, poor offensive line play, and play-calling ultimately thwarted their hopes at a Big Ten West title, but that didn’t stop Jackson. Once again, he posted superb numbers with 1,418 yards and five touchdowns in 2016.
Currently, Jackson has 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns with one more game to play, the Music City Bowl. Something tells me that in Jackson’s final game as a member of the Northwestern Wildcats, he is going to do something special. Call it a hunch, a feeling, or whatever other cliche you wish. I mean, he did rush 32 times for 224 yards and three touchdowns in his last bowl game.
Even without counting the impending match-up with Kentucky on December 29, Justin Jackson’s career has been nothing short of remarkable. He is currently Northwestern’s all-time leader in rushing attempts, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns. Jackson also currently sits in fourth place in rushing in Big Ten history, only 16 yards behind the third place Anthony Thompson. Although Archie Griffin appears to be out of reach with a 306 yard lead.
The most impressive thing to me, which also speaks to the durability that Jackson has displayed, is the fact that he is only the second running back in Big Ten history to rush for at least 1,000 yards in all 4 seasons. The only other running back to accomplish this feat was the great Ron Dayne. Considering the offensive line talent that Northwestern attracts, this achievement is nothing short of extraordinary.
Growing up as an avid fan of Northwestern football, I have been fortunate enough to watch this entire line of backs, starting with Autry, currently with Jackson, and beyond. Despite limited success at the NFL level, you could always count on Northwestern to be able to run the football. It’s in their blood. It’s what they want to do. For the past 22 years, it has become a tradition.
Jackson has reached heights that few players can ever claim, and without the help of other play-makers or a great offensive line. He has been a marked-man for four seasons, and for four seasons, he has eluded defenders week-in and week-out.
Where others have failed before him, I believe Jackson will succeed. I have never thought that any of Northwestern’s running backs had much to work with at the next level, be it a lack of size, speed, elusiveness, etc. It took me a while to warm to the idea that he could succeed in the NFL. The turning point for me was when the Bears played the Steelers this year. It was the first time I had really studied how Le’Veon Bell ran the ball.
Bell, another former Big Ten running back, has a very odd running style. He basically takes the hand-off, bounces on his toes a few times, waits for a hole, and bursts through it. Now, I don’t believe that Jackson has quite the same skill-set that Bell has for the NFL, but he has a similar running style.
For anyone who has watched Jackson over the years knows that he is nothing if not patient. Often delaying his cuts while waiting for that last block to open a hole. He has excellent vision and explosion through the hole. The best aspect of his game, for me at least, is that he knows how to setup blocks and defenders. This leads to his signature move: the inside jump-cut. He performs this move better than any other back that I have watched. The thing is, he doesn’t stop on a dime and make guys dive at air. There are plenty of scat-backs who can do that. Jackson does it seemingly without breaking stride. I am not sure I have ever truly seen that before.
While not overly fast, he is more powerful than his five-foot-eleven, 200 pound frame would indicate. The feet are what gets me though. Jackson’s balance is uncanny. He always seems to be able to get an extra yard or two by staying low and keeping his balance. Countless times he has been completely bottled up by defenders, in their grasp, and he still manages to come out the other side for a big gain.
If Jackson had 4.4 speed, he would be a first-round pick, I have no doubt about that. Sadly, he, like Tyrell Sutton before him, has a combination of not quite big enough and not quite fast enough. He will get drafted and in the right offense, he will succeed. Actually, the Steelers would be the perfect destination. They are already used to blocking for an ultra-patient back in Bell, and he is coming out of contract at the end of the season.
Looking forward to the post-Jackson era has me excited as well. I suspect that the Wildcats will boast a two-headed rushing attack with current red-shirt sophomore John Moten IV and current red-shirt freshman Jeremy Larkin. Both of these young backs have shown the ability to hit the big play when giving Jackson a breather. Honestly, I think that Larkin is a legitimate NFL prospect, but we will have to wait and see with him.
With a Wildcats offense that appears to be returning eight starters from 2017, the 2018 offense looks like it could be a dominant force in the Big Ten West. With Moten IV and Larkin sharing duties in the backfield, it’s safe to say that the tradition of Northwestern running backs will continue for the foreseeable future.