Justin Jackson has been an absolute star for the past two years in a Northwestern uniform. He essentially carried the team on his back as a sophomore, and generally, the team went as he went. He’s on track to be Northwestern’s all-time leading rusher. Tristan Jung and Zach Pereles debate.
Tristan Jung (Rank: 4) The first point anyone will make to doubt Justin Jackson’s importance is that he is somewhat replaceable. With a running back stable of the dependable Warren Long and another potentially decent runner in Auston Anderson, Northwestern has no shortage of runningbacks. Jackson, as the argument goes, is not as important because Northwestern could get at least 70 percent of his production from some combination of its other backs, if not more.
I disagree with this premise. This is not the NFL, which takes the highest echelon of running backs and deploys them at the whim of coaches. In college football, a truly elite skill position player still makes a huge difference. One great player can be a team’s entire offense, and that is exactly what Jackson did last season. Unless Clayton Thorson or one of Northwestern receivers can develop into a similarly dynamic player, Jackson has to remain near the top of this list.
Zach Pereles (Rank: 8) Obviously Jackson is important — he was the only reliable weapon on offense last year, and he found a ton of success despite other teams keying in on stopping him. He’s a fantastic player, no doubt.
But unlike the guys I have ranked above him, he has a replacement-level guy behind him in Warren Long. The running backs are ridiculously deep. In fact, I would almost argue that Jackson should receive fewer carries this year because it would keep him fresher, but he incredibly has shown no problems handling the massive workload he’s been tasked with the past two seasons.
Still, when I think of importance, I factor in, among other things, "How much would the team fall off without him?" and "How important is his development this offseason?" In both categories, I think there are several guys that surpass him.
TJ: I think Jackson’s heavy workload and reliability makes him even more important to the team, especially when the coaching staff seems committed to giving him the ball. Warren Long was good last year, but he still never managed to take significant carries away from Jackson. Even if Northwestern’s passing offense takes a step forward next year, Jackson will still be the player who touches the ball the most on offense, which makes him more "important".
In terms of his development, I actually think Jackson still has a few aspects in which he can improve on that could be very helpful to Northwestern’s cause. His blocking could use a bit more work and he could really help Clayton Thorson by becoming a better pass-catcher. With even more development and maturity possible for Jackson, in addition to his outsized role in the offense, I couldn’t rank him any lower than No. 4. I do think an improvement in the offensive line is probably more important than Jackson’s skills out of the backfield at the moment for Northwestern, but otherwise it’s hard to discount the only reliable offensive player Northwestern has.
ZP: Don’t get me wrong, Jackson is a very good player and an important player. I’ll be the first one to tell you how good he is. But it’s hard for me to rank him really highly on the importance list because I actually envision his role being reduced last year. If the passing offense is as bad as it was last year, that’s a huge problem. But I don’t think it will be, and hence you’ll see Jackson’s carries go down. He’s important, no doubt, but I don’t even think he’ll have as big of a role next year as he did this year, and hence I can’t rank him too highly.
TJ: I think that even if Northwestern’s passing offense takes a few steps forward, it won’t be enough to marginalize Jackson’s game. If we’ve seen anything from McCall’s offense over the past few years, it’s hard to imagine a world in which Jackson is not bordering on over-usage. Of course, we will see what Jackson’s role will be if the team takes a new philosophy next season and attempts to awaken its offense. On the other hand, the team might look back on what worked during its 10-3 season and decide to play it safe. I think the outcome will be closer to the "play it safe" option, which means Jackson has to be in the top half of my list.