Virtually all conventional wisdom suggested that Northwestern running back Justin Jackson should have declared for the NFL draft after his junior season.
Jackson finished 2016 as the leading rusher in the Big Ten, completing his third straight 1,000-yard campaign. He put an exclamation point on the year with a 224-yard, three-touchdown performance in a New Era Pinstripe Bowl victory over Pitt. Given the short shelf life for running backs at the next level, Jackson's heavy college workload pointed toward an early exit.
Instead, he's back in Evanston this spring, going through workouts with the Wildcats and preparing for his senior season. Jackson gave so little consideration to entering the draft that he didn't even submit paperwork to the NFL's college advisory committee.
"I felt like it was in my best interests to come back and fine-tune my skills," he said. "Plus, I've put so much work into this whole school thing, I figured I might as well finish it out."
Jackson will earn his Northwestern degree sometime in the next year. And he could wind up with some truly impressive achievements on the field.
He needs just 357 yards to eclipse Darnell Autry's school record for career rushing yards (4,485). Another 1,000-yard season would give him more than 5,000 yards for his career, something only five Big Ten players have ever accomplished.
In fact, according to ESPN Stats & Information, only eight players in FBS history have ever recorded four straight 1,000-yard seasons. The list includes luminaries such as Wisconsin's Ron Dayne, Pitt's Tony Dorsett and Texas' Cedric Benson. The last player to do it was Southern Miss' Damion Fletcher, from 2006-09.
Players in college football history with four 1,000-yard seasons.
"Those things would mean a lot," Jackson said of the possible milestones. "Most of all, I like to think it means I’ve done everything I possibly could, that I've given everything I possibly could for this program."
That's certainly true from a physical standpoint.
Jackson's 298 carries last year were sixth-most in the FBS, and that actually represented a lighter workload than the previous season. His 855 rushing attempts the past three seasons are second to only San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey (934) and are the most of any returning player in the FBS. The next closest player? Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb, who has taken 739 handoffs the past three years.
That's a lot of pounding and a lot of hits absorbed by Jackson's body. But he never complains or sees that as a reason why he should have left school.
"I know some people might think that," he said. "But, honestly, the way I look at it is I’m here now, and I'm going to do everything in the moment. This team and this program has done so much for me, so I give everything I can to them.
"I have no idea how NFL scouts think. But hopefully they'll look at my production and the fact that I haven’t missed any games, and I hope that can be a plus."
But Jackson also understands that NFL careers can be painfully brief, especially for running backs. He saw what happened last year to friend and former teammate Matthew Harris, a talented defensive back who had to retire from football because of concussions.
Jackson's family has always stressed the need to have a backup plan. That's why he's determined to get his degree in economics while adding two related minors. He's interning this spring at TSMGI, a marketing firm in the Chicago area.
Northwestern running back Justin Jackson is already 17th on the Big Ten's all-time rushing list. A look at the players who rank ahead of Jackson heading into his senior season.
He's also continuing to get better as a player. Last year, Jackson set career highs in total yards (1,524), yards per carry (5.1), receptions (35) and touchdowns (15), equaling his total from his first two seasons combined). There's even more room to improve.
"He’s got a lot to work on to continue to be a complete back," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. "Route running, catching the ball, still continuing to become a great blocker in protection. All those things when you're not getting the handoff."
Jackson is coaching up the young running backs and mostly taking mental reps this spring, as there's little need for him to do much contact work. But he said there are still moments on film when he watches himself and asks, "What was I doing there?" His goal this season is to be closer to perfect on every play.
That's a big goal. Yet for someone who's already accomplished so much, it might be the final frontier.
"He has a great opportunity here in his senior year to rewrite a lot of records that have been held by some special players," Fitzgerald said.
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