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Film Room: What makes Justin Jackson so good?

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Northwestern's top 2014 freshman retains his starting running back spot and could develop into one of the nation's top runners this season.

ESPN

As a four-star recruit coming out of high school, Justin Jackson was always going to have expectations hoisted onto him during his time at Northwestern. But pretty early on in 2014, his true freshman campaign, it became clear just how sizable those expectations were. By the time the calendar turned to October, Jackson was NU's lead back, and he was the focal point of the offense.

Even with that four-star label though, it would've been tough to foresee a 1,000-plus-yard season and double digit touchdowns for the Carol Stream, Ill. native. But that's exactly what Jackson achieved. He cut, juked, and powered his way to a remarkably successful freshman year as a 185-pound freshman.

So what made Jackson, who is certainly fast, but is by no means a burner, so good so early in his career?

Well, the answer to that question lies in his ability to dissect a blocking scheme and choose his own lanes to run through. He's also very good at absorbing initial contact from a defender, and then bouncing off of said contact to gain additional yardage. It's not normal for a true freshman, especially in power-conference college football, to possess these skills, especially when you consider how much stronger Big Ten defenses are than those of the high school teams Jackson faced. But Jackson had them immediately:

Video: ESPN

That's a clip from Jackson's first college game, the season opener against Cal. Jackson uses the initial push from his offensive line to gain five easy yards without having to do much work himself. But after those five yards is where Jackson makes his figurative money. It appeared he would get bottled up for a modest gain. However, instead of going down easily, he takes advantage of a poor tackle attempt by the Cal safety (No. 5) with a spin move which gains him the extra yardage for the first down.

This ability to maintain balance in spite of contact appeared again later in the Cal game:

Video: ESPN

Now in the red zone, Jackson finds his way into the end zone on a play he mostly made himself. This time, the line doesn't create much space for him on an inside run play. But Jackson eschews one tackle by the line of scrimmage and another one a few yards later as he reaches for the goal-line. Once again, Jackson — needing an extra push to get the much-needed score — bounces off the late contact to propel himself forward.

Time and time again throughout the season, Jackson, even at just 185 pounds — relatively slender in college football terms — ran with surprising power. Here's another example from a month later:

Video: ESPN

Here, we see Jackson — on another run from the shotgun — follow his blockers to the right side of the formation. After gaining three or so yards, Jackson nearly gets crushed on a tackle attempt — but it's he, the true freshman, who lowers the boom, not the defender, and while that defender crumbles to the turf, Jackson gets to the edge for several more yards.

For most runners, especially inexperienced freshman, that play would result in a short gain on second down. But for Jackson, it's an 11-yard gain and a Northwestern first down. which happened to continue a drive that ended in a field goal. If Jackson falls down at the first contact he feels, the Wildcats may have been forced to punt had they not converted on 3rd-and-medium. Instead, that drive would end in a successful Jack Mitchell field goal. If not for Jackson, many drives like this one would've stalled. Many of his runs changed the complexion of games.

Later in the upset of Wisconsin, another one of Jackson's special skills was on display:

Video: ESPN

On this 18-yard run, Jackson makes a big cutback to get to the second level. Superback Dan Vitale gives him a crucial cut block at the line of scrimmage, and while the offensive line doesn't necessarily create a clear hole, it gives Jackson enough of a push to create his own hole. Jackson's stellar vision allows him to see the space to the left side of the play, and his footwork allows him to make the quick cut. Knowing when to use your blockers and when to make a cut is such an important distinction, and it's a choice that Jackson, due to his field vision, often makes with apparent ease.

Video: Big Ten Network

Not convinced of Jackson's potential for greatness yet? On this touchdown run against Purdue in November, Jackson avoids a possible loss behind the line of scrimmage with a precise cutback to elude a blitzing Boilermaker linebacker. What makes this cut great is that not only does Jackson evade the linebacker who shoots into the backfield, he also finds the perfect angle to stay clear of the defender pursuing (and getting blocked) from the backside. He then maneuvers his way through the defense, runs through an arm tackle, and finds the end zone.

***

The evidence is clear: Justin Jackson was very, very good in his freshman season — perhaps better than even Northwestern's coaching staff expected him to be. But when looking forward, the best part about his success was that it wasn't one-dimensional at all; he doesn't just out run opposing defenders for long scores, nor does he solely bowl defenders over. Instead, he uses a mixture of physical abilities and intangibles to pick his running lanes perfectly, and maximizing his yardage gained.

"He can make plays for us," senior offensive lineman Geoff Mogus says. "We'll come out and mess up, but he has the ability to turn nothing into something. He's explosive, fast, he can take somebody on in the hole. He can juke somebody out. It's just great having a guy like that."

Jackson did have arthroscopic knee surgery in the spring after injuring his meniscus in practice, but he's been back to full health for a while now, and there's no reason he can't improve upon last year's already impressive numbers.

As head coach Pat Fitzgerald likes to point out, Jackson "got in the weight room and was a college football player" this offseason. "Last year, he played as a high school player."

If that's the case, the sky is the limit for the college version of that high school player in year two.