Northwestern carries a dark horse Heisman candidate in Justin Jackson

Northwestern returns an under-the-radar Heisman candidate in running back Justin Jackson. He”s rushed for 1,000 yards in each of his first three seasons.

Northwestern football didn’t have quite the 2016 many had hoped for after a 10-3 record in 2015. The team ended up losing three games by four points or less on its way to a 7-6 finish. Fortunately for the head coach Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern returns key pieces from this past season.

Three-year starting running back Justin Jackson headlines the group of returners. He’s rushed for more than 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons as the lead back. He also needs just 357 yards to take sole possession of the school’s career rushing yards record.

In his career, Jackson has rushed for 4,129 yards and 30 touchdowns while snagging 78 passes for 582 yards and a touchdown. His consistency earned him All-Big Ten Honors in 2015 and 2016, but he hasn’t received national attention.

A large reason he isn’t mentioned in mainstream media or in Heisman conversations is because he isn’t flashy. At 5-foot-11 and 193-pounds, he’s more of a balanced back. He won’t turn on the afterburners and shred off a lot of 70 or 80-yard touchdown runs. In fact, he’s recorded just three 60-plus yard runs on his 855 career carries.

However, Jackson’s a shifty, tough-to-tackle workhorse. He’s taken a fair amount of punishment touching the ball 933 times in his three years in Evanston. There’s no reason to believe he won’t rush for 1,000 yards for a fourth straight season.

Furthermore, he could see his production rise with an improved two-dimensional offense. Second-year starting quarterback Clayton Thorsen returns after progressing a lot in his sophomore year. He threw for more than 3,000 yards and 22 touchdowns improving on his 1,522 yards and seven touchdowns in 2015.

A lot of Northwestern’s notable teams were built on defense and a balanced offensive attack. The latter is certainly secure for the upcoming season, but the question remains how much coverage this team will get?

They’ve gone 17-9 over the past two seasons with Jackson and Thorsen and there’s no reason to doubt they’ll continue their winning ways.

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