Justin Jackson rushed for 1,187 yards last season. He ranked seventh in the Big Ten behind two guys who had two of the top 20 rushing seasons in college football history, five guys who were selected in the NFL Draft and one guy who enters 2015 as one of the favorites to win the Heisman Trophy.
That’s pretty elite company.
Jackson’s goal for 2015, the follow up to his fantastic freshman campaign at Northwestern: Be better.
“There’s room for improvement,” Jackson said last week during the team’s media day. “I did pretty well, but I think I could do so much better. When I look at film of every single game, I think, ‘I could’ve done this better, this better, this better.’ That’s just what I’m trying to improve on. And obviously next year I’m going to be looking back going, ‘I could’ve done this better, this better.’ If I keep doing that, I’m steadily improving, and that’s really all I’m looking for.”
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Pretty well? No, Jackson didn’t forget what happened last year, he’s just striving to be greater. Yeah, he was in some terrific company, among the best of the best at his position in college football last season. But he’s got the majority of his college career still ahead of him, and ranking seventh in the Big Ten in rushing isn’t as good as leading the league.
More importantly, though, Jackson is seeing personal improvement as one of the keys to improving his team’s fortunes. Despite Jackson’s efforts, Northwestern won just five games last season. He thinks if he can get better, it can up the Cats’ win total.
“Whether it’s national attention or star (status), that doesn’t really matter. I want to help us win,” Jackson said. “And if I’m a better player and I can make people around me better, in that way we can be a better team. And when you win, everything’s great. And when you don’t win, you can be good but it doesn’t matter. We didn’t make a bowl game, so it doesn’t really matter. I really want our team to be a better team, and by me being better, I feel we can be a better team overall.”
Thrust into the spotlight when Venric Mark was suspended and abruptly transferred shortly before last season began, Jackson was terrific as a first-year player. But according to head coach Pat Fitzgerald, that first year includes a lot of what comes after the season. Offseason workouts and spring practice were more first-time experiences for Jackson, and it’s going through that as much as going through a 12-game season that makes the running back more experienced as a sophomore.
“I see him as a sophomore from the standpoint that now he’s been in the weight room for one season and offseason. Everything he did last year was really without competing in spring ball and a winter workout sessions,” Fitzgerald said. “Really liked what I saw from him, the way he handled his rehab, the way that he handled himself in the weight room.”
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“It was different, first time I’ve ever done football full time. I always did basketball or track or something like that. So it was different, but it was really great,” Jackson said. “Getting in the weight room, I learned to love the weight room, to get after the weights. Getting up early every day, it sucks but it’s a good experience for you because it teaches you to get through the things you don’t want to do. So I think it was really fun, I got a lot bigger. I think as a team, we just got a lot bigger, a lot better. And our culture improved, it changed a lot. I’m really excited about this year, and I think our team is just ready to go.”
Topping what he did last season will be tough, but almost everyone in purple and white expects him to do it.
Last season, Jackson toted the ball 245 times for those aforementioned 1,187 yards and 10 touchdowns. And he kept getting better as the season went on. The further removed the Cats were from Mark’s departure, the more carries Jackson received. And he did a lot with them, rushing for at least 100 yards in six of the team’s final eight games. He added 90-plus rush yards in two other games on the season.
In Northwestern’s final three games, Jackson averaged 142 rushing yards and scored five touchdowns, half his season total. Not coincidentally, the Cats’ offense exploded in those last three games, averaging 38 points.
The last we saw of Jackson in 2014 was impressive stuff. He’s hoping to be more impressive in 2015.
“I’m trying to be more of a pass catcher, more of a pass protector, even a better runner, making more big plays, making more people miss and breaking more tackles, scoring more touchdowns, being better in 4th-and-short or 3rd-and-short situations,” Jackson said. “And that all just comes with being more experienced, being bigger, being stronger, being faster and just having the will to do it, to go out there and want it."