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COUNTDOWN TO KENOSHA: Should we expect a decrease in carries from Justin Jackson?

He's had a huge workload each of the past two seasons.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Northwestern officially started its 2016 season by kicking off training camp with a team meeting on Sunday, August 7. The team will be in Evanston for a week and then head up to Kenosha, Wisconsin, for a grueling week of workouts and practices in the summer heat, a time for the team to come together on and off the field. Kenosha will go a long way in determining who wins key position battles, who ends up where on the depth chart and much, much more. It's the equivalent of NFL training camp, except compressed into about one week. We count down the biggest questions—two per day—facing Pat Fitzgerald's team heading into camp.

We continue the countdown with No. 7: Will Justin Jackson receive fewer carries?

To say that Justin Jackson has been a workhorse for the Northwestern offense the past two seasons would be an understatement.

As a freshman, Jackson ran 245 times for 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns, earning honorable mention All-Big Ten. Last season, his workload increased significantly, as he carried the ball 312 times for 1,418 yards and five touchdowns, moving up to second-team All-Big Ten in the process.

Jackson's 312 carries (24 per game) last season were the third most in the country, trailing only Alabama's Derrick Henry (395, 26.3) and Stanford's Christian McCaffrey (337, 24.1). McCaffrey and Henry finished first and second in the Heisman voting, respectively.

The thing that makes Jackson's heavy workload so impressive is his size—or lack thereof. At 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, he doesn't have the ideal build for a workhorse back like Henry, who is 6-foot-3 and 242 pounds, or even McCaffrey, who is 6-foot-1 and 201 pounds but runs a 4.45 40-yard dash.

Jackson's running style is far from conservative, but he is a smart runner who knows how to avoid big, dangerous hits. That's how he has been able to stay healthy despite carrying the ball over 550 times in two seasons. However, don't expect a decrease in carries for Jackson in his junior year.

Somehow, it seems that Jackson gets better later in games, and later in the season. Of his last seven November outings dating back to his freshman campaign, Jackson averaged 148.4 rushing yards. He has eight touchdowns in that same span. In 2015, Jackson averaged 139 rushing yards in games where he tallied 20-plus carries. He gets in a rhythm the more carries he gets.

The only reason Jackson would find himself receiving fewer touches (assuming he is healthy) is if Clayton Thorson and the passing game develops into a legitimate weapon. Last season, Northwestern ranked last in Big Ten scoring (19.5 points per game), passing offense (139 yards per game) and total offense (327.1 yards per game).

However, an improved passing attack should only increase the efficiency of the Northwestern offense rather than detract carries from Jackson. Northwestern threw the ball 388 times last season. That's 30 times per game. Even if Northwestern's passing is more effective—it's almost impossible for it to be worse—it would not change the identity of this offense, which is centered on its star running back. Pat Fitzgerald loves to play smash-mouth football, and he has the personnel to do it.

Even if the passing attack doesn't become respectable, defenses stacked the box against Jackson all of last season and he still managed to put together an impressive season. There's no reason why we shouldn't expect a similar amount of carries as last season for "The Ball Carrier". Although the Wildcats have a gauntlet of a schedule including six opponents ranked in the top 50 nationally for rushing defense last year, expect a heavy dosage of Jackson in every game, as long none of them get out of hand early. Wisconsin (No. 2 overall defense) and Penn State (No. 14) saw a lot of Justin Jackson last year, 35 for 139 yards and 28 times for a season-high 186, respectively. McCall isn't afraid to run Jackson against anyone. And for 10 games, that paid off.

If there is anything Jackson would like to improve on, it's becoming more explosive and breaking longer runs. He's no home run hitter with an average that actually went down (4.8 to 4.5) from his freshman campaign to his sophomore one. Still, it's his ability to keep the offense on schedule by grinding out medium-sized chunks of yardage that makes him so valuable.

Finally out of the shadows of Big Ten-turned-NFL starters Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, Ameer Abdullah, and Jeremy Langford, Jackson is in the spotlight as the Big Ten's premier running back. Northwestern knows it has a star, and it should let him run wild his junior season, even with an improved passing attack.