To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2015. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the power of democracy, and come up with a list that will undoubtedly cause plenty of disagreement.
We've chosen to loosely define the criteria for our list as the players "who will have the biggest impact on the overall outcome of the season." However, we recognize that that's still open to interpretation. For some, it could mean the value of a player over his replacement. It could just mean best player. It could mean players in crucial roles. It could mean players who have underperformed who need to step up.
One thing is certain though: no two lists will be the same. That's why for each player, we'll enlist two of our writers to debate the merits of the player in question.
We're into the top 3 now, and coming at No. 3 is star running back Justin Jackson. Henry Bushnell — who ranked Jackson outside his top 10 — and Josh Burton — who had Jackson atop his list — discuss:
Henry Bushnell (Jackson rank: 12): Looking back at the 2014 season, no Northwestern player was more impressive than Justin Jackson. Venric Mark's transfer in August was a shocker, but with every lightning-quick juke and burst through the whole, Jackson erased any thoughts of what could have been. He averaged 4.8 yards per carry, totalled 1,388 yards on the ground and through the air, and found the end zone 11 times. He also came up big when it mattered, amassing a combined 311 yards rushing in wins over Wisconsin and Notre Dame.
Northwestern also relied on Jackson heavily. Despite a depth chart that also included capable backs such as Treyvon Green, Solomon Vault and Warren Long, Jackson averaged 22.5 carries per game from Week 3 onwards, and carried the ball 245 times throughout the 12-game season. Even as a true freshman, he pretty quickly became NU's workhorse, and held up remarkably well behind a suspect offensive line.
So there's no doubting Jackson's talent. However, in our voting, there was quite of bit of disagreement when it came to Jackson's importance. I was lower on him than anybody. Josh, I'll let you begin though by explaining why you see Jackson as so important:
Josh Burton (Jackson rank: 1): Northwestern, with its current roster, is not going to be a team that can rely on passing to put points on the board. Sure, there is talent at the quarterback and wide receiver positions, but the clear strength of this team is on the ground, which all starts with Justin Jackson.
As you mentioned, Jackson was a surprise as a freshman and was a big reason the Wildcats were able to hold their own — relatively speaking — in the Big Ten. Now, as a sophomore, he's going to have to perform as well as he did last year, if not better, if NU is going to take the step forward that Pat Fitzgerald has been grooming it for the past few recruiting cycles. Guys like Vault, Long and Auston Anderson have promise, but they don't have Jackson's every-down capabilities.
Frankly, I think this team will go in 2015 where Jackson will take it. The quarterback battle is important and all, but if Jackson regresses at all, it'll be very hard for Northwestern to field a potent offensive attack. But, if he does build on his breakout campaign, the Wildcats can be a dangerous team led by one of the country's top running backs.
Henry Bushnell: So, obviously, as my ranking indicates, I disagree. And I disagree for a few reasons.
First of all, I think Jackson's success last year is an argument in my favor. He was really good... but NU's offense was still pitiful. More than anything, I think that — and my ranking, for that matter — speaks to the value, or lack thereof, of the running back position. Over the past several years, we've seen the devaluation of it in the pro game, and while that hasn't necessarily translated to the college game, I think more and more people are realizing that a running back doesn't make or break an offense. Even for great backs, it's tough to overcome a porous offensive line and/or an ineffective passing game, but replacement level backs can look like world-beaters behind road-paving lines. That's why I see offensive linemen and, of course, the quarterback as far more important.
And I actually look at what Jackson did last season as somewhat close to his ceiling. I know that's difficult to say about a true freshman who will have his first full college offseason of development under his belt, but most of it has to do with workload. Jackson is 5-foot-11, 185 pounds. He also suffered a knee injury, albeit not a severe one, and had surgery this spring. I don't think Fitzgerald and McCall will ride him as heavily as they did last year; and if they do, I can't see Jackson holding up over a 12 game season without either getting injured or becoming significantly less effective.
And that leads into my next point. I don't think they'll have to. Jackson was used for everything last year. This year, McCall and running backs coach Matt MacPherson will find specialized roles for Vault, Anderson and Long to take the pressure off Jackson. And as far as importance goes, that depth also means that if Jackson were to go down, I don't think NU's offense would take as significant a hit as many might think. Jackson is certainly the best player in the backfield, but Anderson, Vault and Long would be more than serviceable. Outside of truly elite ones, running backs are, in my mind, naturally some of the most easily-replaceable players on a football team.
Josh Burton: Regarding the first point you made, Northwestern's lack of any reliable option at quarterback made Jackson's job at running back even harder, as opposing defenses could focus solely on stopping him. Even with this one-dimensionality, he managed to have a dominant season.
If the Wildcats are able to establish even a semblance of a passing game, defenses will be forced to respect it somewhat, which should open up running lanes for Jackson and the rest of NU's stable of backs. That should only serve to improve his effectiveness and the impact he'll have on the team. I also disagree with your notion that Jackson won't be relied upon as the main ballcarrier for the Wildcats, as I simply don't think Vault, Anderson and Long can be trusted with many carries in important games.
Henry Bushnell: Those are interesting points. But in a weird way, I actually think the situation last year brought out the best in Jackson. His best attribute is his agility. Last season, he was, play after play, forced to maneuver in tight spaces and evade defenders with a quick cut at the line of scrimmage. That brought out that agility, and it's one of the reasons we all agree he was so good last year. So while he would definitely gain more yards with a passing game supporting his efforts, and with more room to run, that room to run is more important to guys like Auston Anderson who can break big runs and turn those holes into huge gains. Jackson isn't that guy.
I also don't see any evidence to suggest the passing game will improve though. I'd argue that NU has suffered downgrades at quarterback, wide receiver, and on the offensive line. There's the potential for improvement at all three positions, because young players will be stepping into roles, but you can't just assume those young players will be better than the likes of Trevor Siemian, Kyle Prater, Brandon Vitabile and others.
And that's exactly why I think those other players — Thorson/Alviti/Oliver, Christian Jones, Goeff Mogus, Brad North, Tommy Doles/Blake Hance, etc. — are more important than Jackson.
Josh Burton: 1 | Jason Dorow: 2 | Zach Pereles: 2 | Ian McCafferty: 4 | Ben Goren: 5 Kevin Dukovic: 5 | Michael Odom: 5 | Josh Rosenblat: 8 | Henry Bushnell: 12
Which side of this argument do you fall on? Does Jackson belong in the top 3? Top 5? Top 10?