Evanston, Ill. — Carrying the load for Northwestern is a seven-days-a-week job for Justin Jackson.
On Sundays, the Wildcats’ day off, Jackson is back at the football facility stretching and straining the lactic acid out of his aching muscles for two, three, maybe four hours.
Jackson’s routine is not unique, but no running back in college football has needed it more. Over the last three seasons, he has more combined carries and catches than any player in a Power Five conference, and he has done it while weighing less than 200 pounds. (He’s 5-11 and 195 pounds.)
Jackson is an old-school, four-year workhorse in an era of tailback-by-committee offenses and early NFL draft entrants.
“He’s a throwback guy,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
And maybe the toughest running back in college football.
Another typical season for Jackson will make him just the sixth player in major-college football history to have 1,200 career touches from scrimmage and the first to reach that mark since 1999 Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne, according to statistics compiled by sports-reference.com. It is a number that could give NFL teams pause come draft season. Still, Jackson said he never gave much thought to going pro after his junior year.
“A lot of people want to look ahead, especially, like, running backs. You want to get (to the NFL) as fast as you can because you have this shelf-life, but for me I never really did that,” Jackson said. “I feel like I haven’t reached my potential. And that’s another reason why I guess I hadn’t really considered it.”
Over the last three seasons, the only back with more scrimmage touches in FBS than Jackson (933) was Donnel Pumphrey (1,111), the San Diego State star who played in the Mountain West and broke the NCAA’s official record for career rushing yards last season. Pumphrey, another mighty mite at 5-foot-7, 170 pounds, was drafted last month by the Philadelphia Eagles in the fourth round.
Jackson’s touches from scrimmage are 139 more than the next closest back playing in a Power Five conference (Ralph Webb of Vanderbilt).
What Jackson has been doing in the Big Ten is a continuation of what he did at Glenbard North High School in the suburbs of Chicago, where he left as one of the most prolific players in state history with 6,531 yards rushing.
As a freshman at Northwestern, Jackson carried 245 times for 1,187 yards and caught 22 passes for 201 yards.
“I was probably 185 pounds playing my freshman year, which is ridiculous for the Big Ten. I probably wouldn’t have suggested it for myself. Probably not safe,” he said with a smile.
Jackson hopes to get up to 205 pounds by the start of a 2017 season that could push him into elite college football company. With 4,129 yards rushing, he is 357 from breaking the Northwestern record held by Damien Anderson. Another 1,000-yard season puts him in the FBS all-time top 20. Match last season’s 1,524 yards rushing and Jackson would be seventh all-time.
“You grow up playing ‘NCAA College Football’ (video games). … You’re on ‘Road to Glory,’ your guy finishes four years and you’re like third in the record books. It’s fun to think about when you’re younger because you’re imagination’s running wild. I’m actually in that position. That’s incredible to me,” Jackson said.
Jackson will eventually try to make it in an NFL where the window for running backs to cram in a lucrative career is shrinking.
Wisconsin’s Dayne, who is third on the FBS list with 1,251 career touches, was one of five running backs taken in the first round of the 2000 NFL draft. Since 2013, when for the first time no running backs were drafted in the first round, there have been a total of five running backs taken in the first round. Of those running backs, only Christian McCaffrey (731) had more than 700 touches from scrimmage in his college career.
On the back end, the market for veteran running backs in the NFL is tepid.
Jackson won’t be a first-round pick. Not at his size. But he is most definitely an NFL prospect. Dane Brugler, NFL draft analyst for CBS Sports and NFLDraftScout.com, said Jackson could be the first Northwestern running back ever selected in the first three rounds. Durability is a commodity.
“On one hand, the NFL wants fresh backs,” Brugler said. “But there is something to be said about production and experience, and if the medical reports aren’t an issue then Jackson will be fine.”
Keeping Jackson fresh for game day at Northwestern has meant managing his work load during the week. “He hasn’t been hit in practice in two years,” Fitzgerald said.
Fitzgerald went so far as to put Jackson in the purple, no-contact jersey usually reserved for quarterbacks. Jackson was less than thrilled.
“But he doesn’t get a choice,” Fitzgerald said.
Phil Jackson, Justin’s father, said he trusts Northwestern coaches to do what’s right for his son. Mostly, he trusts Justin to take care of himself.
“He knows that football is a very brutal sport,” Jackson said. “He realizes that later in life there’s probably going to be some difficulties but in truth that happens with most people that participate in athletics one way or another. But basically Justin, he enjoys the touches, he loves the fact that his coaches and his teams and the people that play around him and with him are trusting him.”
During a 30-minute interview at Northwestern this spring, Justin Jackson, who lost his mother to breast cancer when he was 3, talks a lot about living in the moment and finishing what he starts. An economics major, minoring in French, Jackson is on target to graduate after the football season.
“That’s how I’ve gotten to where I am,” he said. “Every single moment, every single carry, every single catch, every single block is vitally important and you really have to look at it like that or you won’t be focused enough in the moment to get the job done.”