Football: A Q&A with Northwestern RB Justin Jackson (the Ball Carrier)


Daily file photo by Daniel Tian

Justin Jackson celebrates in the end zone after scoring a touchdown against Wisconsin. The sophomore running back finished the regular season 14th in the country with 1,344 rushing yards.

Alex Putterman, Web Editor


Minutes after Northwestern’s 24-14 win over Illinois on Nov. 28, Pat Fitzgerald stood on the Soldier Field grass as hundreds of Wildcats fans chanted his name. The coach smiled and pumped his fist, then pointed at Justin Jackson a few yards away, as the cheers of “Fitz, Fitz, Fitz, Fitz” warped into “J-J, J-J, J-J, J-J.”

Fitzgerald’s message was clear: That guy is the biggest reason NU is 10-2.

Last week, Jackson, a sophomore running back, earned second-team All-Big Ten honors after completing his second straight 1,000-yard season. He ranks 14th in the country in rushing yards and leads the nation in carries and has climbed to sixth on NU’s all-time rushing list.

The Daily spoke to Jackson on Thursday about his “Ball Carrier” nickname, preferred bowl destination, place in the NU record books and more.

The Daily: First of all, what were your overall impressions of the season, for the team and also for yourself?

Jackson: We won a lot of close games, which we didn’t do last year. It really gave us a lot of confidence winning early against some good teams like Stanford and Duke, and overall as a team we came together, and we pulled out the close ones. That speaks a lot to our team unity and the confidence we had in each other, trust we had in each other. It was a really good year, and we’re planning on winning our last game and doing something no other Northwestern team has done.

The Daily: And what about personally? Were you pleased with how you played?

Jackson: I did pretty well. I could improve on a lot of things, but what I can say is I went out every day and played hard, and that’s really all I ask of myself. Obviously I want to get better at a lot of things, but at the end of the day I went out and I made some plays to help our team.

The Daily: What are some of those things you think you can improve on?

Jackson: You know, there’s a lot. One thing I didn’t really have control over, but getting hurt last offseason I didn’t get to work on my lower body as much as I wanted to. So that’s just something I’m definitely going to focus on this bowl season and then in the offseason, just to be able to power through some stuff. So that’s one of the main focuses that I have. And then continuing to improve in the pass game, whether it’s pass protection or routes and stuff like that.

The Daily: So what does improving your lower body help with specifically?

Jackson: Just breaking more tackles, finishing better on the goal line, finishing runs better. One or two steps here or there, speed, things like that. So there’s an endless list of things, but all it comes down to is getting in the weight room.

The Daily: You didn’t score as many touchdowns (four) as it seems like you should have. You’d get down to the three-yard line and Warren Long or Clayton Thorson or somebody would take it in. Do you think that’s just how it happened, or is there something you can improve on to help there.

Jackson: Oh there’s definitely stuff I can improve on. I had chances that I didn’t get in. But obviously Warren is a 210-pound guy, great lower body, great hip drive, great finisher, great short yardage guy. And so he finished some runs that I couldn’t, and that’s something that helped our team win some games. He had four or five touchdowns on the year, which was huge for us, and a lot of them were down at the goal line when we really needed to score in some big games. So I’m really proud of him. That’s why it’s not just me back there. It’s me, Solo (Solomon Vault), Warren, Auston (Anderson). We all complement each other well. It doesn’t really matter if I got a touchdown or he got a touchdown, as long as we got a touchdown and it helped our team. 

The Daily: What do you think of the whole “Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier” mythology?

Jackson: It just started one game and kind of just percolated from there. It’s pretty cool. I think it just shows we have a lot of good fan support, and this year it’s been great. We’ve had a really big student section every game, they’ve been traveling to some away games, and I think I even heard (the chant) at Soldier Field, which was really awesome. That just means our team did really well, and our fans are noticing that, and they’re coming to games and they’re cheering us on, so it’s awesome. 

The Daily: Do your teammates tease you about “Justin Jackson the Ball Carrier?”

Jackson: It’s every day, it’s never-ending. It’s funny, we tease each other, but we’re really close. Things like that, we call Anthony Walker “the franchise,” Clayton is “QB1,” Deonte Gibson is “Terminator Te.” We have nicknames for everyone. It just shows our team unity and how close we are and how we like to have fun with each other. We like to humble each other too, so it’s easy not to get a big head around here.

The Daily: Congrats on being named second-team All-Big Ten. Obviously the team is most important, but is that a cool honor to get?

Jackson: It’s cool. It’s just a sign of how hard I’ve worked and just this team. I couldn’t have done it without my o-lineman, the other running backs helping me out, the receivers blocking, so it’s really more of a team award. It really shows how hard we’ve worked and all the production we’ve had and how we continue to just fight through. It might be a personal award in theory, but in all honesty I think it’s way more of a team thing.

The Daily: The last couple of years the Big Ten has been really stacked with running backs. Do you measure yourself against those other guys?

Jackson: Personally I just like to root for running backs. I think we’re somewhat of a dying breed, so I really like to see other running backs doing well. Obviously the Big Ten is one of the best conferences for running backs, so just to be talked about with some of these other guys is really cool for me. Do I stack myself against them? No I just like to do as much as I can for the team. But do I like to see them do well? Yeah I like to watch the tape, I like to get better from them, and it’s nice to go back and forth during a game with a great running back, so I think that’s pretty cool too.

The Daily: All the time we keep hearing these stats — Justin just became the sixth-leading rusher in school history, fifth to have back-to-back 1,000 yards seasons. Given the players that have been here, what do you think when you hear you’re climbing these lists and you’re only a sophomore?

Jackson: Obviously this program has had some really good running backs in its history: Damien Anderson, Darnell Autry, Tyrel Sutton, Venric (Mark), it goes on and on. So it’s just really cool to be in the conversation with guys like this because I know how great of players they were. When I get some encouragement from guys like Damien Anderson on Twitter, that’s just really crazy. I never thought I’d be getting stuff like that. So I’m going to just keep working hard and keep making those guys proud. I try to honor the running back tradition that we have here.

The Daily: Is being remembered as the greatest running back in Northwestern history something that would be a motivator for you?

Jackson: If I ever got to that point that would mean that our team did pretty well for the next few years. Running the ball is a huge part of our offense, and if I can continue to do well, and if we can continue to do well in the running back room, that means we’re winning games, so hopefully that’s the end result of that. Yeah it’d be cool to be talked about like that. Obviously anyone would want that, just showing how hard they worked. That’s something you strive for, something you work for, and if that’s what it comes down to in my career, that will show all the hard work I’ve put in, all the hard work we’ve put in as a team.

The Daily: Do you take pride in having the most carries of any back in the country?

Jackson: (Laughs)

The Daily: Or do you wish you had 50 fewer?

Jackson: Whatever it takes to win games. We won 10 games this year, whether that was 300 carries or 100 carries, we won 10 games, and that’s the most important part. I’m just glad I could get through all 12 games, not miss a game, not miss a rep for injury or anything like that. That’s just a credit to our training staff and all the other guys in the running back room who step in when I need a rest. So it’s pretty cool. I wish I could be a little more efficient with it, but I’m just trying to do as much as I can for the team.

The Daily: If it were up to you, what bowl game would you guys be going to?

Jackson: Honestly, I really don’t care. As long as it’s some place warm, it’s cool with me. It’s not Detroit, we know it won’t be Detroit, so that’s good. Honestly, anywhere in California or Florida. I’ve never been to California, so that would be cool. What I’ve heard is either the Citrus Bowl or the Outback Bowl. I’m just glad we get another month of this team because this team’s awesome. I’m glad we get to play one more game in a nice stadium against a really good team, get some nice bowl gifts and get that 11th win.

The Daily: Did you follow the College Football Rankings and all the drama with that?

Jackson: I didn’t see it when it happened live, I heard about it. It is what it is. They might still disrespect us, whatever, we know how good of a team we are, and we’re going to show that coming into the bowl game.

The Daily: So you think you should be higher?

Jackson: Everyone around here thinks we should be higher. The body of work we’ve put in this year, some teams we’ve beaten this year are higher than us with the same record. Doesn’t really make sense to me, but it is what it is. There are going to be biases in college football. That’s how it goes. A lot of it’s about brand names and stuff like that, but we know how good of a team we are, and we’re going to stick together no matter who we play. It’s about us and how we’re going to play. 

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Twitter: @AlexPutterman