We are ten days away from the start of the college football season and as this article is being written, no decision has been made about who will be starting at quarterback for the Wildcats when they open the season on September 5th against Stanford. We still don’t know exactly how the offense line will be put together or who the top wide receiver targets are going to be with so many young players being given an opportunity this week in Kenosha. The one position with no doubt surrounding it is the last in our offensive positional previews, running back.
Player to Watch – Justin Jackson
This is a no-brainer. Perhaps the only certainty on the Northwestern offense is at the running back position, which starts and ends with Justin Jackson. Jackson was named to the Big Ten’s Preseason Players to Watch list last month, and is going to be the focus of the Northwestern offense again this season. Jackson rushed for 1187 yards on 245 attempts last season as a freshman, scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground and one more through the air.
Jackson was a bit of a surprise as a freshman, especially with Treyvon Green and Solomon Vault on the roster, but he very quickly became the team’s number one back last season. Jackson was ranked 7th in the Big Ten in rushing yards, and with so many of the backs ahead of him on that list gone to the NFL, Jackson has an opportunity to be one of the best in the conference this season.
Jackson’s success is going to depend on a few things, one being his health. He is coming off some minor knee surgery and his ability to carry the offense and stay healthy all season is going to be a key to the offense. A big part of that is the rest of the offense’s ability to carry their weight and take pressure off of Jackson in the run game. If the passing game can be a factor and keep defenses honest, it is only going to aid Jackson’s success, but if the Wildcats are not a threat through the air, they will become a very predictable, one-dimensional offense and, in turn, hinder Jackson’s production.
That said, the production of Jackson and the rest of the backs could help the receivers. If defenses find themselves too worried about what he is going to do, it could lead to play-action and opportunities down the field.
While the success of the position and the entire offense rests on Jackson’s shoulders (or better yet, legs), he is not the only back who can make an impact this season. I was very impressed with Auston Anderson in spring practice. What he lacks in size he makes up for in speed and agility. Anderson scored one of the only touchdowns during the scrimmage that day, and while that is a small sample size in a low-pressure environment, I think he can add a dangerous element to the run game and take some of the pressure off of Jackson and give him some rest. The challenge will be finding playing time in a crowded backfield alongside Jackson, Vault and Warren Long, but if Anderson is fully recovered from his hip surgery that caused him to red shirt last season, he can add an entirely different element to this offense.
With so many other questions at so many positions on offense, the 2015 Wildcats will no doubt be a run-first team. A lot of other things will need to fall into place to make this a truly potent offense, but the running back position gives them the best chance to succeed and be a legitimate contender in the Big Ten this season.