Were it not for the Chicago Bulls’ stunning Game 1 win over the Miami Heat in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the NBA Playoffs, Justin Jackson’s commitment to Northwestern might have become public knowledge well before Tuesday night’s Twitter announcement. Jackson had his mind made up by the weekend, passed the news along to coach Pat Fitzgerald, then held off until Tuesday because “I wanted to watch the Heat game, and I knew there’d be a lot of phone calls, so I decided to wait.”
A tidy four-game Miami sweep may have prevented, or accelerated, the process (the trite "blame LeBron" meme feels appropriate here).
For the sizable majority of recruiting-tethered Northwestern fans who thought otherwise, who grew anxious over the possibility that three-star running back Auston Anderson’s commitment last week had forced Jackson to reconsider, you now understand the delay, in fact, was much simpler than that.
Besides, Anderson’s commitment, in a vacuum, did not push Jackson to make his decision, or even compress his preferred decision timeline in any discernible way. He spoke with Fitzgerald and other coaches the day of Anderson’s commitment just to ensure the two parties still saw eye-to-eye, that the mutual attraction ran just as deep as before Jackson’s announcement. The Wildcats still wanted Jackson, and Jackson still wanted the opportunity to compete in a backfield that, with the addition of Anderson, will foster even more competitive fire and on-field versatility in one year’s time.
After that reassurance, Jackson’s thoughts turned to the bigger picture. What did adding a player like Anderson, having eschewed the likes of Stanford, Texas, Arkansas and others, on top of Big Ten-envy Dareian Watkins’ commitment, say about Northwestern’s recruiting class, and the larger trajectory of its momentous climb under Fitzgerald?
“Another player we got who’s obviously very good,” he said.
The gradual collection of upper-tier talent accumulated in this 2014 class – Anderson and four-star receiver Watkins being the latest pieces of evidence – put Jackson over the edge.
“I really felt the class was getting better overall,” Jackson said Tuesday. “I felt like it was time to commit.”
Much of the local NU populace won’t enjoy discussing playoff basketball with Jackson – “Everybody hates the heat in Chicago,” he said – but they will enjoy what one NFL writer described last night as “a legit talent.” If the joy over last week’s Anderson commitment was grounded in optimistic Venric Mark size-to-skills comparisons, Jackson doesn’t have an obvious roster correlate.
His allotment of skills, and the aspects of the game in which he applies them, spans a wider range of responsibilities and actions. Being a conventional workhorse back, or a three-down ball carrier, is a good basic description. Pass-protection is another important part of his job. The most important thing to remember – when questions about carries being split between Jackson and Anderson and Malin Jones and whoever inevitably surface – is that Northwestern’s offense is flexible to its personnel needs.
If a particular game requires Jackson, a more conventional downhill runner, to shoulder the load, so be it. If the Wildcats are gashing a slower linebacking corps with quick pitches and horizontal stretch plays, perhaps Anderson or Stephen Buckley or 2013 signee Xavier Menifield will be charged with the bulk of the running workload.
The underlying theme – and maybe Jackson’s most lucid description of coordinator Mick McCall’s general philosophy – is a spread attack that, more than anything else, runs “north to south.” Jackson can live with that.
“Coach McCall does an excellent job of changing the offense according to what players he has,” he said. “I’ve watched film with coach Mac [running backs coach Matt MacPherson] and the offense was a lot clearer to me.”
The opportunity to watch Jackson realize his potential in Northwestern’s backfield will have to wait at least one more season. Jackson won’t be on campus until next summer, as one of the headlining local pieces of the most highly-touted recruiting class of Fitzgerald’s tenure. He doesn’t plan to waste any time in between.
Besides checking in for a few Northwestern home games, Jackson plans to assume the unofficial if encouraged assistant recruiting coordinator title – the same way fellow 2014 commit Clayton Thorson encouraged Jackson to make his verbal pledge. Where Jackson and Thorson differ, is in the passive approach Jackson plans to take.
There are nine commitments in the 2014 class, and each new member continues to not only buttress Northwestern’s future talent reserves, but make the Wildcats an extremely intriguing potential destination for players like Jackson, Thorson and whoever else fills out the rest of the 2014 group. Jackson will take your questions; the hands-on recruiting work – the phone calls and pleading and begging – is not his thing.
Nope: The 2014 class recruited itself, for Jackson, and presumably, the others following in his footsteps.
“I like it when players reach out and ask,” he said. “Clayton reached out to me. We knew each other from playing against each other from when we were younger.”
There’s a chance you’ll see Jackson at some of Northwestern’s home games this season. He looks forward to attending one or more of the Wildcats’ planned night contests, especially the Ohio State game. He also plans to improve the sharpness of his cuts, his explosiveness coming out of them and refine his overall knowledge of offensive schemes.
The Heat are another part of his summer he very much looks forward to. His college decision is out of the way, which means Jackson can, finally, just, relax.
“It was getting kind of tiring,” Jackson said of his recruiting process.
Just don’t celebrate Miami’s playoff wins too much. That’s a sensitive topic for folks around here. Heat, Bulls or anyone else, Jackson’s skills and execution on the field will speak louder than his NBA fandom, and for the Northwestern-Bulls fans out there, my best advice about dealing with whatever Heat-related misgivings you may have (which, if it involves Jackson, are probably minimal), in the most friendly way possible: get over it.
School: Glenbard North (IL)
Other offers: Boston College, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Minnesota, Mississippi State, Missouri, Purdue, Syracuse, Vanderbilt
Profiles: Scout, Rivals, ESPN
Notes: Committed to NU on May 14; Last year’s Gatorade Player of the Year in Illinois; Visit to NU weekend of March 9, according to Rivals