Northwestern Football Preview: Running Back

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It’s easy to stand out on the worst offense in the Big Ten, but Justin Jackson deserves every bit of the attention he is getting going into his junior season.

Jackson has found his way onto nearly every pre-season watch list as well as a spot on Fox Sports’ Top Ten College Running Backs list.

While Northwestern’s offense ranked dead last in the conference in total yards, passing yards and points last season, Jackson somehow found a way to lead the team to the 4th best rushing offense in the Big Ten. Jackson’s 312 attempts was most in the conference and his 1,418 yards was second behind only Ezekiel Elliot.

“The first word would be tough,” head coach Pat Fitzgerald said when asked about the 5’11” back. “He’s a tough guy. He’s not 250 pounds but he plays that way. It just seems like he has great vision and elusiveness, never really takes a big hit and still continues to move the pile forward.”

While Jackson racked up the yards en route to ten wins last season, the lack of an effective passing game caused him to struggle to make big plays. His 4.5 yards per attempt was ranked 18th and his five touchdowns ranked him 25th, tied with quarterback Clayton Thorson and second string running back Warren Long.

The key to Jackson’s success this season is two fold. Northwestern will need to establish their passing game as a threat, something they failed to do last season behind Thorson, and Jackson will need some help splitting up the carries, something Fitzgerald feels confident about going into the season.

“I think we’ve got pretty good depth in the backfield,” said Fitzgerald. “As I look to where Warren Long will fit into the puzzle, Auston Anderson, Johnny Moten. I pretty good confidence in that group of four.”

With Solomon Vault moving to wide receiver Long should get more play out of the backfield, and Anderson should make up for Vault’s blazing speed, giving the Wildcats another look from their running game.

“He’s so skilled, so quick, so fast, change of direction is great,” Jackson said of Anderson. “He’s gonna be a huge part of our offense this year.”

Despite the positional depth Fitzgerald went on and on about at Big Ten Media Day, it will also depend on what kind of development we see from Thorson and his grab bag of receivers. Last season you could put money on Northwestern’s play calls, especially on first down. The ball was going to Jackson.

That predictability was one of the things that led to Jackson’s lack of efficiency on carries. Defenses saw it coming because there was absolutely no threat through the air, which led to an extremely heavy workload for Jackson, something he was asked about at Media Day.

“I feel better going into this season than I did going into last season so hopefully that’s going to be something I can hang my hat on,” said Jackson.

It’s a good thing, too, because defenses will key in on him every week. His name will be on every team’s white board in the visiting locker rooms. And Jackson will be ready.