Northwestern running backs coach Matt MacPherson has said he’ll try to diversify the rushing attack more this season, but that doesn’t mean junior Justin Jackson won’t remain the centerpiece of the unit — and the entire offense.
Jackson was, indisputably, the most reliable and talented aspect of the Wildcats’ attack last season, but he was by no means explosive. Despite ranking third in the nation with 312 carries, he managed just 25 runs of longer than 10 yards, or about 1.9 such runs per game.
However, Jackson’s ability to pound the ball for medium-distance gains proved invaluable for the Cats’ conservative offense, and his durability and even improvement as the carries piled up was a major reason why the team ended the regular season with five straight close victories.
The “Ball Carrier” ran for at least 116 yards in each of the final four regular season games and tallied three of his five total touchdowns during that stretch, as well. As the days grew colder and Jackson’s workload increased from 14 carries per game in October to 31 carries per game in November, he actually said he felt better physically than he did earlier in the season.
MacPherson, coach Pat Fitzgerald and the rest of the coaching staff — as well as Jackson himself — certainly know that inexplicable trend isn’t sustainable, though, and will need to take greater action to preserve their best offensive player in 2016.
Other units should be able to help the cause. A more seasoned Clayton Thorson should be expected to throw the ball more. A speedier receiving group should be able to force opposing linebackers and defensive backs farther downfield from the line of scrimmage.
And a healthier offensive line should be able to closer emulate its performance against Stanford last year, when it steadily pushed back the Cardinal’s bigger defense, rather than its performance for the 2015 season as a whole: 89th in stuff rate (carries for zero or negative yards), 116th in sack rate.
Nevertheless, the most critical step will be to spread the carries around more liberally.
Senior Warren Long was a solid change-of-pace back in 2015, finding the endzone just as often as Jackson (five times) and actually averaging a full yard more per carry (5.5 vs. 4.5). Yet he touched the ball only 63 times to Jackson’s 333 — ideally, 60 to 80 more of those touches should be in Long’s hands in 2016.
Long, who is one inch taller and 17 pounds bigger than Jackson and hasn’t fumbled since 2013, could be used for the majority of up-the-middle runs — always a favorite of offensive coordinator Mick McCall.
A pair of speedsters, sophomore Auston Anderson and redshirt freshman John Moten IV, will also compete for occasional carries (and for heavy playing time late in routs).
MacPherson told the Daily in April the competition within the unit should motivate all of the backs to improve, but the team has struggled to get them all healthy and competing at the same time this offseason. Long missed spring camp recovering from surgery and Anderson has been absent for the team’s last two scrimmages this August.
Somehow, Jackson — throughout all of the bruising he’s taken over the past two seasons and even back in high school — has been the one staying injury-free, and that is a good sign. For all of the talk about balancing the workload, there’s no question that Jackson remains the most dangerous playmaker on NU’s roster.
Jackson has a tendency to find a rhythm when he’s heavily involved in the offense: in games where he’s carried 20 times or more, he’s averaged 5.0 yards per carry, versus 3.4 yards per carry in game with fewer than 20 carries.
With that in mind, the Cats could try to aim for that 20-carry marker while limiting or eliminating his 30-or-more-carry games (of which he had four last season).
One way or another, though, Jackson needs to be toting the rock frequently for the Cats.