clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Justin Jackson’s 2016 numbers show he could be even better with an improved offensive line

New, 2 comments

Jackson did a ridiculous amount of his work last season AFTER contact.

NCAA Football: Indiana at Northwestern
I am so excited for another season of watching these cuts.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

I hope every Northwestern football fan appreciates how special it is that we’ve gotten to watch Justin Jackson do his thing game in and game out for the last three seasons. He’s never missed a game, and despite playing with decent-at-best offensive lines for his entire career, has been one of the most consistently productive running backs in college football.

On Monday, Pro Football Focus tweeted out a few interesting graphics that show just how impressive Jackson is when it comes to creating much of his yardage on his own.

Out of Jackson’s Big Ten-leading 1,524 rushing yards in 2016, a whopping 1,071 came after contact, good for the fifth-highest total in the FBS. All four of the rushers with more yards after contact were taken in the first five rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft.

Yet that graph doesn’t tell the whole story. The four backs ahead of Jackson all finished among the top six nationally in total rushing yards. Pumphrey and Foreman broke 2,000 yards on the season. Jackson, with just over 1,500 yards, was 13th. When we switch it up and take a look at the percentage of yards that came after contact among those five guys, the order is flipped on its head.

A different perspective

Player Rushing yards Rushing yards after contact Percentage of yards after contact
Player Rushing yards Rushing yards after contact Percentage of yards after contact
Justin Jackson 1524 1071 70.3
Dalvin Cook 1765 1208 68.4
Jeremy McNichols 1709 1109 64.9
D'Onta Foreman 2028 1142 56.3
Donnel Pumphrey 2133 1190 55.8

Of course, there are other factors that play into that percentage. Among those five guys, Jackson is almost certainly near or at the bottom in speed and acceleration. That could mean he may not have been able to get by as many initial defenders, resulting in earlier first contact.

It also says a lot about the offensive lines those five backs were running behind. Let’s take a look at some advanced stats, courtesy of Football Outsiders.

FO O-line stats for the top 5 RBs in yards after contact

Offense Adj. LY Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk
Offense Adj. LY Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk
Florida State 121 7 2.96 69 3.52 39 42.80% 27 78.70% 8 19.30% 72
Boise State 103.7 56 3.03 60 3.63 29 39.80% 68 73.50% 31 16.60% 30
Texas 103.3 59 3.14 43 3.66 26 41.90% 38 73.20% 35 13.10% 3
Northwestern 101.8 68 2.74 102 2.88 98 33.60% 118 66.70% 74 22.70% 115
San Diego State 100.8 76 3.27 24 3.25 73 41.70% 40 75.00% 20 18.50% 62

Here’s an explanation for those statistics.

Screenshot from Football Outsiders

Northwestern is last in every metric except Adjusted Line Yards, which factors in the strength of opposing defensive lines. Jackson was running behind a line that was in the bottom half of the FBS in every measure, and was bottom-15 in especially important ones like Opportunity Rate and Stuff Rate. That says pretty much all you need to know about his vision and agility.

In case you were wondering, Northwestern’s O-line struggles weren’t unique to 2016. Here’s a look at how that unit has stacked up in run blocking throughout Jackson’s career.

Justin Jackson’s Northwestern O-lines

Year Adj. LY Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk
Year Adj. LY Rk Std. Downs Line Yards Rk Pass. Downs Line Yards Rk Opp. Rate Rk Power Success Rate Rk Stuff Rate Rk
2014 98.4 83 2.85 81 3.08 87 33.00% 117 65.50% 81 18.40% 51
2015 97.3 84 2.74 90 3.02 85 35.20% 106 58.70% 110 21.10% 89
2016 101.8 68 2.74 102 2.88 98 33.60% 118 66.70% 74 22.70% 115

With poor offensive lines throughout his career, Jackson has had to make the most of the holes he gets and make plenty of defenders miss. He racked up 62 broken tackles in 2016, third-most among returning players, which also says a lot about his deceptive strength.

The combination of vision and patience with elusiveness and power is what makes Jackson so special. This is how a typical Jackson highlight run goes. First, he finds a hole and bursts onto the second level. There, he finds himself staring down a defender. Unfortunately for that would-be tackler, Jackson then puts a foot in the ground and makes an unstoppable cut or juke. Once that’s been completed, he gets to run in open space for a while.

I present Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

And Exhibit C:

Given how tough Jackson is to tackle, all of the data I gave you earlier begs one question: what would he be able to accomplish with an above-average offensive line? Northwestern returns four starters on the line and adds a talented grad transfer in Trey Klock, so this could conceivably be the best group Jackson’s ever had at his disposal in Evanston. Imagine if he consistently has bigger holes to work with and can rip off chunks of yardage before he’s even touched...

Or, maybe he’ll have a ho-hum offensive line for the fourth straight year. That wouldn’t be anything new. It certainly wouldn’t be a problem for the best running back in college football at gaining yards after contact.

We’ve only got one season of The Ballcarrier left. I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.