Running back Justin Jackson had a busy schedule at Northwestern. He majored in economics and minored in French and business while becoming the school’s all-time leader in rushes, rushing touchdowns, and rushing yards with 5,440, the third-highest total in Big Ten history.
But Jackson, who never missed a game in his college career, still made a point of carving out time to join special teams meetings. It didn’t matter that he rarely participated his last couple of years.
“I love football and I love being a student of the game and I love just learning all the ins and outs and really appreciating it,” he said. “I didn’t have to do it, but I knew maybe one day I would have to, and I just liked being in there and learning what my teammates would have to do to help us win.”
Jackson is putting his college education to good use with the Chargers. Not the economics degree or the French classes — the special teams lessons.
Chosen by the Chargers in the seventh round of this year’s draft, Jackson didn’t get much of a chance to prove himself after he injured his hamstring during the second week of training camp. He recovered to make seven carries for 18 yards in the final preseason game but was waived and re-signed to the practice squad.
Now he’s back in the running. Jackson was promoted to the 53-man roster this week to replace Detrez Newsome, who was waived.
Coach Anthony Lynn’s plans for Jackson against the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday include special-teams duty, in addition to possible time behind running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler.
With his NFL debut a day away, time at those special teams meetings at Northwestern turned out to be well spent.
“I think I can use some of that stuff. now that I’m in the position I’m in, to my advantage,” said Jackson, the second Big Ten player, after Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne, to rush for 1,000 yards or more in four straight seasons.
“I’m trying to be ready in all facets. I’m trying to make an impact in any way I can, so when my cleats hit that field I want to make a play, and that’s what it comes down to. So whether that’s special teams or at running back, I want to make sure I’m prepared and get myself mentally and physically ready to go out here and just make a play.”
Lynn has kept an eye on Jackson and likes what he has seen in a small sample size.
“He has fresh legs, for one. He looks good in practice,” Lynn said. “We did miss out on seeing him in training camp and preseason games, but he can run. He’s been a very productive runner his whole life. I just want to look at him.”
A quick and durable runner who racked up 1,142 rushing attempts in college, Jackson has quickness and an elusiveness that can’t be taught.
He also could be a pass-catching threat, having made 122 receptions for 858 yards in his four seasons, including a career-high 44 catches as a senior.
His size — a slender 6 feet tall and 199 pounds — worked against him in the draft, however. Jackson remembers “waiting and waiting” until Chargers general manager Tom Telesco called.
“That was an awesome moment, something I’d been dreaming of for a long time,” Jackson said, “so to actually have that realized was amazing, and being able to tell my dad and call my family it was just a surreal experience and one I won’t forget for sure.
“It doesn’t really matter where you’re picked. I read an interesting stat that a majority of this league is made up of guys who are drafted fourth or fifth round or later, or undrafted. It just comes down to how you work when you get here. I don’t think it really matters how you get here, it’s about what you do when you do get here, so that was my mind-set going in.”
Jackson wasn’t completely fit during the preseason game he played, but was proud he was able to tough it out.
“I’m thankful that they saw enough that they thought I should get an opportunity, even though it was practice squad,” he said. “I was 100% fine with that. I could get healthy. I could learn more, I could go out there and compete against our ones, our first defense, and go out there and show what I could really do. Obviously they saw something that they liked and they’re going to give me this shot.”
Jackson said he expects to have “those first-play jitters” Sunday, “because you’re at the highest level of what you’re doing,” but is more excited than nervous.
“I’m going to go as hard as I can every single play, and if I make a mistake I’ll make it going 100%, all-out,” he said. “For me, it’s about just continuing to work. You’re never satisfied. I don’t think I’ve really done anything but work hard and keep my head down and just go out there and play. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”