Everyone should know Justin Jackson by now.
The rising senior running back has rushed for 1,000-plus yards in each of his three seasons and he led the Big Ten in rushing yards last year. This is a guy who, despite his 5-foot-11 frame, seems to enjoy taking on hits, dish them out himself and get stronger as the game goes on. Northwestern has been in the unenviable position of trying to find ways to preserve Jackson.
It has helped that Northwestern has had several strong running options to do so — from Warren Long (now a linebacker) to Solomon Vault (injured this year) to Auston Anderson and John Moten IV. The Wildcats feel confident with their run game.
Or at least, their runners.
Northwestern has big expectations and hopes for this season. Even Teddy Greenstein of the Chicago Tribune said if the Wildcats do not compete for a Big Ten West title this year, “Something is seriously wrong.” That might well be the case with a favorable schedule and such a veteran group — including Jackson as a senior.
The Wildcats have every reason to believe they control their own destiny and they can win the Big Ten West this year for all those reasons.
But the biggest lingering question remains. And it is a fundamental one. One that sometimes gets overlooked when looking at the bright stars.
This is the Big Ten, after all. And at some point, it becomes about whether a team can win in the trenches.
Northwestern has rarely had a strong offensive line. Or at least one that can compete with the pedigree from Wisconsin and Iowa. Pat Fitzgerald has long employed a zone blocking scheme to try to counteract some of the talent and size deficit Northwestern usually has. The Wildcats also tend to use a lot of perimeter passing and short throws to keep defenses from coming at them with an all-out blitz.
The one thing Fitzgerald has never enjoyed was a “bell-cow” back like Jackson. And the one thing Jackson has rarely had is a consistent offensive line.
Even with Northwestern returning most of its starters from last year, everyone knew Northwestern would need to reshape its offensive line.
The Wildcats gave up 39 sacks last year, among the most in the Big Ten. They also accumulated 2.88 standard down yards according to Football Outsiders. That is 102nd in the nation. Essentially this means the offensive line was not creating much push and helping the Wildcats stay in front of the chains. In other words, Jackson has been rushing well in spite of his team’s offensive line.
The sacks may be mitigated with Clayton Thorson becoming more decisive in the pocket. He definitely held the ball too long on occasion last year. But the line might very well be the one thing that derails Northwestern’s season.
The first group to get a crack at starting is certainly an intriguing one.
According to Northwestern’s Week One depth chart, Brad North will anchor the line at center. He is flanked by Blake Hance and Tommy Doles at guard and Jared Thomas and Gunnar Vogel at tackle. It is definitely an interesting group.
North is the stalwart. He was entrenched as the starting center this offseason. The senior started every game at center last year and was solid. Everyone else seemed up in the air.
Hance and Doles are the other veterans. Both were consistent last year. Doles was an all-Big Ten honorable mention. Their spots seemed safe entering the season. And their understanding of the scheme helps.
Where Fitzgerald surprised with his decision was at tackle. Jared Thomas appeared in every game last year as a backup offensive lineman. So he has experience. But he was not an every-down player and never a starter. He mostly worked special teams.
Still, for a redshirt freshman to get into the offensive line rotation on this team was a good sign of his growing talent.
That is the position Vogel finds himself in. Vogel worked on the defensive side of the ball last season as he redshirted. He played offensive line in high school, but still that is a big transition to make from practice squad defensive lineman to starting offensive lineman.
With all the attendant weight.
The Wildcats, frankly, are not very deep at offensive line. J.B. Butler, Nik Urban and true freshman Rashawn Slater are the only other players listed on the two-deep.
This does not bode well for Northwestern. Or, at least, it provides a ton of uncertainty for the Wildcats. Northwestern will not go anywhere without a strong offensive line.
It is safe to say, this is the big experiment that will take place in the season opener against Nevada. The Wolfpack had one of the worst defenses in the country last year. And surely they will get a bit better (there is only one way to go), but there is also a reason the Wildcats are favored by 24 points. That just seems downright gaudy.
This might be a game to get some confidence and build some momentum for the rest of the non-conference season.
Justin Jackson certainly will make that easy. But for Northwestern to become special — as special as they want to be — the offensive line will have to be a difference maker. And play seemingly beyond their years.