With the team’s final selection of the 2018 NFL Draft, the Los Angeles Chargers elected to add some stability to their running back room in the form of Justin Jackson. While a limited player, Jackson’s production at Northwestern was worth a second look for most NFL franchises.
Rushing for 1,000 plus yards all four seasons for the Wildcats, Jackson’s senior season came with some hope for the future. Collecting 11 touchdowns and averaging 4.6 yards per carry, Jackson projected to be a situational back or potential third down back.
A rough preseason out on the coast, however, led Los Angeles to waive him following the team’s final outing in September. He went unclaimed and was placed on the team’s practice squad. By week 4, he was upgraded to the team’s active roster.
In Week 14, thanks to a short week and injuries, Jackson will have a chance to make his mark with the Chargers offense as the team’s starter. Los Angeles’ injury woes have been costly to the team this season, and, while still young and inexperienced, Jackson is the last resort at running back this Thursday as the team travels to Arrowhead Stadium for a matchup against the first place Kansas City Chiefs.
“You can teach vision. You can work with a guy’s footwork and his run-reads, but what Justin has — is instincts,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “That is something you cannot teach. He has better instincts than a lot of people would, and that’s why he’s been so successful over his running back career.”
The rookie running back saw his role steadily increase over the past several games with the loss of Melvin Gordon. The Pro Bowl running back was forced to leave early in Week 12 against the Arizona Cardinals with a knee injury. Results showed that the former top 15 draft selection was expected to miss multiple weeks and could be limited for the remainder of the season.
With Austin Ekeler expected to take on a more prominent role, it was Jackson that impressed a majority of fans that Sunday night. While Ekeler still was productive in the passing game, it was Jackson who found success on the ground.
Rushing for 63 yards and a touchdown, the former Wildcat standout showed growth in the ability to make defenders miss in the open field. His speed wasn’t perfect, but his clean cuts and juking skills made his overall night a memorable one.
“I saw that’s been waiting on the runway. Waiting for his opportunity. When he got it, I thought he took full advantage of it. He’s not banged up at all. He’s fresh, and that’s what we brought him here for. This time of year, a lot of young backs have to step up and play, and he was ready.”
With Ekeler now on the injured list, Jackson will share carries with Detrez Newsome and perhaps Derek Watt. But a majority of runs will come from Jackson, who still is getting used to life in the NFL. Before his real first chance at secondary running back against Arizona, Jackson rushed for just seven yards on five carries.
Even after an excellent performance in Pittsburgh, Jackson faced the harsh reality of a setback against the Bengals. While Los Angeles pulled out the victory, Jackson’s stat line suffered a loss. Rushing for just 12 yards on seven carries, the 23-year-old running back averaged only 1.7 yards per carry.
But there’s always a light at the end of every dark tunnel. For Jackson’s tunnel, Thursday’s starting nod comes in the form of Kansas City’s run defense. The unit ranks 25th in the league heading down the stretch.
It’s not hard to realize that Tom Telesco and the Chargers staff was smart for electing to keep Jackson around in whatever role possible. There’s talent there waiting to break out into a more prominent role. That wish is about to be real for Jackson on Thursday.
”Justin has done a great job of really staying on — you know, when we picked him late in the draft, one of the things that stood out was his production from college,” Chargers coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We didn’t see as much of that maybe in the OTAs and training camp. He was nicked up a bit, but he did enough to make the roster, and he’s really been doing a good job on the scout team. That’s a credit to him. If you ever wanted to have a model for this is why you work on those teams to prepare you, it showed up last week.”
While the Chargers injury bug continues to be a problem for the staff moving closer towards the playoff, Jackson could be another diamond in the rough. The team has found ways to win with limited talent and currently hold the second best record in the AFC.
All it takes is one run to change the course of a game. For Jackson, he’ll be given plenty of opportunities to make that run possible.