Pillote: Justin Jackson’s workload is too much


Bobby Pillote, Columnist

Stop giving Justin Jackson the ball.

Yes, the sophomore running back is the best player on Northwestern’s football team and yes, the Wildcats needed to keep it on the ground to grind out a close win on the road over Duke, but 35 carries is too many.

“He probably had too many touches,” coach Pat Fitzgerald admitted. “But he’s a guy that can handle it. He’s a throwback running back. He’s one of those guys that just gets tougher the more he carries the ball. … We were in four-wheel drive most of the game, and he’s really important when we do that.”

I have no doubt that Jackson is physically capable of handling the football that many times in a game, and that, teammate camaraderie aside, he wants every single carry he can get, but that doesn’t mean Jackson taking every handoff is in his best interest or the best interest of the team.

For all the talk of Jackson’s excellence — which is still evident every time he conjures a three-yard gain from what looked like a tackle for loss — he hasn’t gotten off to a very fast start statistically this season. Jackson averages just 3.91 yards per carry through three games, and ranks second nationally with a staggering 85 carries.

That puts Jackson on pace to receive 28 carries a game the rest of the year. For comparison, most top running backs like Ohio State’s Ezekiel Elliot and Georgia’s Nick Chubb are on pace to average about 20 carries a game.

NU is going to run the ball a lot, especially while redshirt freshman Clayton Thorson continues to mature in the passing game, and they have to distribute the ball more to keep Jackson fresh for high-leverage situations. It’s also inexcusable that the coaching staff doesn’t spread the wealth around what is arguably the deepest position group on the team.

Junior Warren Long and sophomore Solomon Vault are both capable with the ball in their hands, as each proved Saturday by scoring a touchdown. And redshirt freshman Auston Anderson impressed in spring practice but has yet to sniff meaningful playing time this year.

Whether it’s power packages, outside zones, speed options, quarterback draws or jet sweeps, there are plenty of ways to get the ball out of Jackson’s hands and still gain yardage on the ground.

Although it’s highly unlikely a running back is going to start to wear down in his sophomore season, the Cats still have at least nine games to play and haven’t even started their conference schedule, and Jackson is going to be on the roster for at least one more year beyond this one. The coaches should keep that in mind.

Imagine this scenario: Jackson, Vault, Long, Thorson, Anderson, and maybe even freshman receiver Jelani Roberts and sophomore quarterback Matt Alviti all split the workload in the first three quarters, keeping the opposing defense off-balance with a variety of play calls and running styles.

Then, in the fourth quarter, with the defense gassed and NU nursing a close lead, a still-fresh Jackson assumes the lead role and repeatedly bursts through the line for big gain after big gain to seal the win for the Cats.

That sounds much better than 35 carries for just 120 yards.

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