The 2018 NFL Draft is set for Thursday, April 26th through Saturday, April 28th. As the stars of the college game get ready to find out where they will begin their NFL journey, CBS Local Sports’ “My Life As” series will give them an opportunity to talk about how they got to this point and what they expect from the future in their own words.
Today, we check in with Northwestern running back Justin Jackson. Jackson was a four-year starter for the Wildcats, amassing over 6,000 total yards and 42 touchdowns. In a deep running back class, Jackson’s name may not jump off the board at you, but it would be foolish to count him out.
This is a great running back class and I’m honored to be a part of it. It was great to get to go and compete against them at the combine and see where I stacked up. But, I think some people overlook me and Northwestern guys as a whole. But, when you put us up against anyone, we always put our best foot forward and that’s what I do.
A lot of people may look at me and say I don’t pass the eye test, but when I get out on the field and am doing my thing, I think I add a lot of value to an offense. When it comes down to it, I can make anybody miss and that’s the name of the game.
Honestly, the main reason I started playing football was because as a little kid, I just wanted to do what my older brother was doing. I was in second grade and my brother was in fourth grade and my dad, brother and I went to the park district to sign him up to play. Up until that point I hadn’t really played any organized sports. I was eight years old, so I had mostly just played video games and played outside with my brother. So, my brother was there signing up and as we were walking out the door after signing him up, I said, I want to sign up too.
It’s funny because I hadn’t really watched any football or really been a sports fan up until that point, but I wanted to do what my brother was doing. I ended up really liking it, and I started playing running back right away.
I loved playing running back because I always had the ball in my hands. My coaches saw that I was pretty athletic so they wanted to get the ball in my hands right away and see if I could make something happen. Early on, I definitely would try to bounce it outside a little too much, I remember distinctly having those conversations with my coaches with them telling me I needed to run the ball inside more. But, when you’re that young, you’re really just there having fun and I always enjoyed being outside and just competing.
The competition with my brother really developed a little later in terms of football. When we were younger, he played offensive line because he was bigger as a kid. But, we competed a lot off the field. We would battle each other in video games all the time. My dad actually rigged a TV into the backseat of the car so that on long-distance trips we could play video games against each other for hours on end.
Once we got to high school, my sophomore year we played together for the first time and that was really fun. It was a different experience because I wanted to be out there competing and playing, but my brother was the starter and I was the back-up. So, I played mostly on defense until the playoffs started and we started to split carries. I think I grew up more in that time when I was playing behind my brother and the coaches saw that. It was always a healthy competition between the two of us, but it was even better because we always supported each other and had each other’s backs. Those times are still some of my best memories getting to go out and play in games with my brother.
When it came time for me to decide on where to play in college, the reason I chose Northwestern is because of the people. Anywhere you go, they’re going to sell you on the facilities and the game experience and all that, which you can get at a lot of places. But, the people at Northwestern were different. The coaches really pushed us towards the players when we came on visits because they really wanted you to get to know who you were going to be playing with.
At other places, they didn’t want you around the players because I think they knew that their players maybe weren’t going to treat the young guys right. That maybe they weren’t going to look at you like a brother/teammate but rather as competition. Like, this is someone who’s coming in to try and take my job, take my spot. It was never like that at Northwestern. I could really tell that there was a family atmosphere there.
There’s so many great games from my time at NU that I’ll remember, it seems like almost every game we played in came down to the wire. But, really, the thing I’ll miss the most is the guys in that locker room. You’re with those guys every single day. Waking up at 530 a.m. every day to go work out even when you don’t want to or don’t feel like it, it helps to have those guys right there with you going through it too. In spending so much time with them you really do become brothers and you develop a strong bond. When I look back at my time at NU, those locker room conversations, hanging out with the guys, messing around, those are the things that stick out the most.
That locker room atmosphere along with the fact that I felt like I could still get better was the reason I came back for my senior year. I felt that I could end on an even better year (Editor’s note: They did going 10-3 and winning the Music City Bowl) and I wanted to finish with the guys I came in with.
Also, when you go to Northwestern and put in all the time towards academics that is required there, it’s something that you 100% want to finish. I only had eight classes left, so I really wanted to make sure to return and finish those to finish out my degree.
Now that school is behind me and I’m getting ready for the NFL, I’m really focused on improving my explosiveness and speed. I’m still working with my trainer that helped me for the combine where I was able to make in those areas (4.51 40-yard dash at the combine). Being able to work with him on speed and explosiveness out of my cuts has been great and those are the parts of my game that make me a dynamic player.
The other thing is trying to get my body ready. A lot of people have told me that this is the longest offseason I’ll have because of the combine, followed by pro day, and the Draft, etc. So, I’m trying to make sure to take care of my body in the midst of all the training that I’ve been doing in preparation for the upcoming year.
This draft is deep in running backs, but I think one thing I bring to the table that will help me is being able to do multiple things out of the backfield. That’s huge for a running back in today’s NFL. Catching the ball out of the backfield, running routes, stepping up and knowing your assignment in pass protection is really important. Also, winning your battles and making something out of nothing is big. I have a lot of confidence in myself in 1-on-1 situations that I’ll make that first guy, or even the second and third guy, miss. That dynamic ability to be able to help my team in any situation is something that I believe I bring to any team that takes a chance on me.