One was a seventh-round pick coming off a storied collegiate career.
The other was an undrafted free agent out of tiny Western Carolina looking to defy the odds in a crowded running backs room.
Both ended up impressing to not only earn roster spots in 2018, but provide enough glimpses that the Chargers are excited about what they can do in year two this upcoming season.
We’re talking of course about Justin Jackson and Detrez Newsome.
It’s not easy to get touches when players of Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler’s ilk are ahead of you on the depth chart.
However, whenever Jackson and Newsome got a chance, they proved up to the task.
That’s not always the case for players who flash when given extended opportunities in the summer, but are then thrown into the fire at a moment’s notice come the fall and winter.
Jackson toted the rock 50 times on the year with the vast majority coming down the stretch. He ran for 204 yards, averaging 4.1 yards per carry, with two touchdowns. He also caught 15 passes for 135 yards. Jackson’s most impressive performance came in his first real extended action, helping spark the Chargers’ epic 33-30 comeback win on Sunday Night Football in Pittsburgh. He broke out in the second half, hauling in a 19-yard catch while toting the rock eight times for 63 yards (7.9 avg.).
Meanwhile, Newsome delivered when called upon in the Bolts’ other huge primetime comeback when they stormed back from a late deficit to stun the Kansas City Chiefs, 29-8, and clinch a playoff berth. He played a career-high 18 offensive snaps, totaling 34 yards on six carries (5.7 ypc) with two catches for 19 yards. All in all, Newsome totaled 11 carries in 2018 for 49 yards (4.5 ypc).
“We both stepped up when we needed to when the team needed us,” Jackson said. “Like Melvin (Gordon) always tells us, we’ve got to go out there and work every day like we are the starter because you never know when you’ll be needed to. And then you’ll have to help the team. And that’s what we did.”
The way each back produced in those situations is a major reason why Offensive Coordinator Ken Whisenhunt is a big fan of both players. At the same time, Whiz explained they each must take another leap forward heading into year two, which is when players most often see significant growth.
“When they actually played, and they played in big games at the end of the year, they made some plays,” Whisenhunt said. “This goes back to what I was saying earlier, last year, Detrez had a couple of big runs in the preseason, Justin was a little bit nicked up and didn’t do a whole lot in the preseason, but then when those guys actually got reps in the regular season game you’re like, ‘Wow.’ They showed up, they did some good things (but) they still have some room to grow. They picked up well where they left off and they’ve done some good things (this offseason). Justin has made some plays. Detrez has as well. We have a really good group with those guys. I think their versatility, their ability to protect and be able to take on a backer and understanding those protection schemes is really good. We’re excited about all those guys.”
General Manager Tom Telesco has also been pleased by what he’s seen from Jackson, not to mention the entire stable of running backs, making that clear when fielded a direct question about the former Northwestern star during last week’s special mailbag.
“I believe you will see a bigger role from Justin Jackson,” he said. “He has looked very good this offseason and produced at a high level when called upon during last season. With Melvin Gordon, Austin Ekeler, Detrez Newsome, Troymaine Pope and Justin, we have a productive backfield with complementary styles.”
So, why exactly do Jackson and Newsome feel primed to take another leap forward in their progress?
Well, as each RB stressed over and over again, a big part of it comes with experience.
“That’s big, just knowing what your doing,” Jackson explained. “It helps you play faster. Things slow down (for) your vision and your eyes, which is so big for a running back. So when you go out there and things slow down, you can be a little more instinctual and not have to think. That’s when you’re at your best as a running back.”
“Just knowing what to do in certain situations now (compared) to last year is the big thing,” Newsome added. “And just situations in general. What people do. What the defense does and knowing our whole offense.”
It also helps that Jackson and Newsome have forged a strong bond.
While they may compete for touches, they’re constantly helping the other improve by bouncing ideas off one another. The pair has even been inseparable at times, especially when they lived together early in their Chargers career.
“We’re always trying to help each other out,” Jackson said. “There’s competition (there) like with everybody, but we’re always (talking). What can I have done here. What would you have done there. It’s fun. I roomed with him the whole time from minicamp all the way through training camp (last year). We got to know each other, and he and I have a good bond.”
“It’s been big having (with me,” echoed Newsome. “Like he said, we’re always bouncing ideas back off each other. What should I have done here? What do you think about this? Hey, did you see what happened on this play? Stuff like that.”
Of course, as they’ve heard time and time again the past few months, the Bolts are expecting each running back to take another leap forward in their sophomore year.
So, what does each player want to work on to improve their all-around game?
“It’s hard to pick just one thing, but (for me) it’s just being more explosive,” Jackson answered. “Making those small plays into bigger plays. That’s something I’ve been working on through high school and college, and I (still will).”
“For me, it’s pass protection,” Newsome said. “That and route running.”
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