When it became clear that Venric Mark was leaving Northwestern football, things looked bleak for the Wildcats at the running back position. Mark was the undoubted starter, the fifth-year senior who was finally feeling healthy after an injury-riddled 2013. Suddenly, there were 20+ carries to be had and no clear favorite to claim them.
But then Justin Jackson happened.
The freshman from Carol Stream, Ill. ran for 147 yards and two touchdowns against Purdue to bring his season total to 1,057 yards and 8 scores. He’s been the workhorse for Northwestern, averaging more than 20 carries per game. His vision is exceptional and he runs with a purpose that you don’t usually see from a true freshman.
It’s been a remarkable rookie campaign, but it doesn’t seem that Jackson is 100-percent satisfied with the year he’s had.
"Honestly, I think I could probably do more," he said after the 38-14 victory. "When I watch the film, I’m always like ‘I could have probably got a few more yards here and there.’ But I’m proud of the way I’ve played."
In a season where so much has varied for the Wildcats from week to week, Justin Jackson has been the one constant Northwestern has been able to count on.
When you listen to Jackson talk, it’s clear that he’s a film rat. He’s his toughest critic, pointing out that while his play has steadily improved, it’s far from perfect.
"Just getting my pads down, getting some few extra yards when they’re there. Avoiding those third and shorts, getting the extra yards to make it first and ten, and working on my pass blocking too."
Coach Pat Fitzgerald agrees that there’s still room for improvement for Justin Jackson, but he’s been thoroughly impressed by the 5-foot-11, 185-pound running back. Without mentioning Mark by name, Fitzgerald praised the way Jackson stepped up and filled the giant void that Mark’s departure opened.
"I’m really proud to see a young man step up like that, especially when we go back to August, when we had a big old void at the position," Fitzgerald said.
The older players on this team are deeply appreciative of the effort Jackson has put forth this year. It should be very enjoyable to watch Justin Jackson for three more years and to see just how good this young man can become.
"That kid can play," said senior wide receiver Tony Jones. "He’s impressive. He’s only going to continue to better, with his work ethic, a great offseason with Coach Hooten and his staff. The sky is the limit for Justin Jackson."
For Jackson to reach his full potential he’ll need to stay healthy, which is often hard to do when you carry the ball as much as Jackson tends to run as hard as he does. But if he can avoid the injury bug that has bitten Northwestern so hard this season, Jackson has the potential to be a special player.