There are currently five running backs on the Chargers’ roster.
Only two have experience carrying the ball in the NFL.
One, Austin Ekeler, is entering just his second season. The other is Melvin Gordon, who at the age of 25 is the elder-statesman entering his fourth season.
All in all, the Chargers are one of merely two teams (Giants) with just two running backs on their roster with an NFL carry under their belt. They’re also one of only four teams to not have a single running back over 25.
Thus, it appears everything is falling in place for seventh-round pick Justin Jackson to carve out a meaningful role in his first year with the Bolts. That’s not always the case for a rookie, so it’s clear the Northwestern product is in a fortunate situation.
“I think there’s definitely room for me to compete,” Jackson acknowledged shortly after minicamp ended. “Melvin is in his fourth year, but he’s the oldest guy in the room, which is wild. It’s definitely a different situation. There are definitely snaps (to be earned), and that’s what I’m competing for. This is huge. Not everyone gets this opportunity, so I am really cherishing it. But you have to take advantage of it, and that’s what I’m planning on doing.”
Being one of the most productive rushers in Big-10 history also helps his case.
The 6-0, 199-pounder is not only the leading rusher in Northwestern history, but ranks third all-time in the conference with 6,289 yards. Jackson scored 42 touchdowns in his career, and become the ninth player in NCAA history to eclipse 1,000 yards all four years he played.
So, it’s easy to see why the Chargers were thrilled they were able to steal him with the 251st overall pick.
“(He was a) highly-productive Big Ten running back in both rushing and receiving,” General Manager Tom Telesco said immediately after selecting him. “His production is off the charts. (He’s a) great kid, very smart, obviously at Northwestern. Drafting him in the seventh round, it was pretty exciting that Justin was there and we had a chance to draft him. We think he has a great opportunity with the way the roster is right now.”
“Number one thing I liked about him was his production,” added Head Coach Anthony Lynn. “He’s highly productive and very consistent. There’s a pattern of success with this young man. He’s 200-pounds, (6-0), so he’s not a big back, but he can make people miss. He has great vision so I can just see him making a lot of first downs in our league.”
However, Jackson knows nothing is being handed to him.
In fact, he’s not the only young running back the Bolts are high on as the team will also take a long look at Russell Hansbrough and Detrez Newsome. Thus, Jackson isn’t worried about carving out a meaningful role at the moment. Instead, his focus heading into training camp is to simply earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
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“Obviously there is a long road ahead, and I’m just trying to take it one day at a time,” he said. “If you think about the big picture, it can be pretty stressful. So I’m looking to come back (for training camp) and prove (my worth). Just show it with consistency. That’s consistency in knowing your assignments and consistency in performing. Doing all the things you have to do whether it’s also special teams or catching the ball out of the backfield or blocking. I always try to be a versatile, well-rounded played, so that’s what I’m going to go out there and try to show.”
Like most, Jackson has heard about the stark difference between college and the pros. All it took was two months in the Chargers’ offseason program to see what all the fuss was about.
“There are huge differences,” he said. “The playbook is very different, so I have to plan for that. The talent is much greater than at the collegiate level. Everyone is the best at what they do here. I definitely saw that coming and heard about it, but once you get in there, it’s really crazy how fast everything is. The playbook is still hard to get right away. It just takes time, and over time, I’ll be able to pick it up for sure.”
It’s also helpful that there’s another rookie to lean on who just happens to be his roommate.
The Bolts paired Jackson up with Newsome, an undrafted free agent out of Western Carolina, and the two have been virtually inseparable. They attack the playbook together on a nightly basis, which has served to speed up the learning process.
“We work a lot with each other trying to get the playbook down,” Jackson said. “It’s helpful, for sure. He’s helping a lot. We are going through everything at the same time. The older guys have helped out a lot too, which is really nice. But then we’ll also get some work in by ourselves later on.”