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Northwestern football’s most important players — No. 4: Justin Jackson

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The Ballcarrier is one of the most important players on Northwestern for the third consecutive year.

NCAA Football: Pinstripe Bowl-Northwestern vs Pittsburgh William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

To kick off a summer of football at Inside NU, we are counting down Northwestern's Top 10 Most Important Players in 2017. We've put our heads together as a staff, used the unruly power of democracy, and created 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.

Next up we have the Ballcarrier himself, Justin Jackson.

Ian McCafferty (Jackson rank: 2): I am personally offended that Justin Jackson is not higher on this list.

This is no offense to anyone ranked at No. 3 or 2, but aside from Clayton Thorson, Justin Jackson is the most important player on this team. He is quite literally half the offense. By the end of the season, he will almost certainly be the leading rusher in Northwestern history. Just re-watch the Pinstripe Bowl and try to argue that Justin Jackson isn’t incredibly important to this team.

The increased role of John Moten III is an interesting wrinkle in the offense, but the cow bell back will still be Jackson. Through his first three years, Jackson has accumulated 855 rushing attempts for 4,129 yards and 30 touchdowns. Week in and week out, Jackson has shown up and done his job, becoming the most reliable part of Northwestern’s offense. There might be guys who are faster or bigger, but Justin Jackson just keeps moving forward.

As Jackson goes, the offense goes, and that’s truly why he’s actually so important to the team. When Jackson is running well, that opens up the passing game, specifically the play action. Given the hit or miss quality of the offensive line, Thorson doesn’t always have time to throw the ball down the field. The play action opens up that deep ball, or at the very least forces opposing defenses to back off the all out pass rushing attack. The games when Jackson is stuffed at the line are the one’s where Northwestern traditionally just gets rolled.

Jackson seems like the easy or obvious answer here, but that’s because, well, he is that important. There are plenty of guys you can take off the roster and the team would be able to change or adapt; remove Justin Jackson and the offense becomes a shell of itself.

Will Ragatz (Jackson rank: NR): Ah yes, it is me again, here to attempt to explain why I left some of the clear-cut best players on the team off of my top 10. And once again, as was the case with Godwin Igwebuike, it all comes down to the definition of importance.

Let me try to explain some of the factors I considered while compiling my list. Admittedly, this wasn’t something I spent hours on; I basically just went in with a few ideas of how I wanted to determine importance and then went with my gut from there. To me, the two biggest questions to answer when thinking about a player’s importance are:

A) will the player’s improvement (or lack thereof) have a strong impact on the season’s success?

B) how deep is their position group? Could the team survive losing them for a period of time less than the full season?

For the sake of this fun and pointless exercise, I generally decided to assume that no one will get injured in August camp and miss the entire season. If we were simply ranking players based on how hard losing them for all of 2017 would be, my list would certainly look a little different. Instead, questions A and B concentrate more on the importance a player has on the outcome of the 2017 season. I take into account positional depth, but only to see how the team could survive without a player for a game or two, not the whole season.

My argument for keeping Justin Jackson off my list is pretty similar to the one I gave for Igwebuike. Regarding question A, both seniors are proven, known commodities. They’ve still got some room for improvement (who doesn’t?), but as Second Team All-Big Ten honorees in 2016, they’re already consistently elite producers on the football field. Ian gave you some of Jackson’s stats already, but you already know how good he is.

Assuming Jackson is able to stay as healthy as he has throughout his incredible career, we can chalk up a fourth-straight 1,000-yard season and 10 touchdowns as his floor. His ceiling is probably 1,700 yards and 20 touchdowns, but the biggest determinant of whether or not he reaches that isn’t Jackson himself. After all, what areas of his game could he improve upon? His vision and agility are already among the best in the nation, and he’s not magically getting any faster this offseason. The way Jackson will reach his statistical ceiling is with significant improvement from the offensive line.

It’s also worth mentioning that John Moten IV looks like an extremely talented backup. He’s not nearly the player Jackson is, but he can more than hold his own when called on and has better breakaway speed. Yes, Justin Jackson is extremely important to Northwestern. But, assuming he suits up for every game (*knocks furiously on wood*), his play isn’t going to make or break the crucial 2017 season. He’s going to do his thing like he always does; it’s the pieces around him, the unknown quantities, that will determine whether the Wildcats pick up 6 wins or 10 this fall.