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Mike Helfgot | Chicago Tribune | August 22, 2016

Northwestern looking for more balanced offense

  Northwestern is hoping a stronger passing game can ease some of Justin Jackson's workload.

Pat Fitzgerald was having fun with Twitter.

His message was addressed to Justin Jackson, though it wasn't really meant for him.

"Tell your coach not to give you the ball so much," it read, "we need you."

Fitzgerald was Jackson's future coach at the time, and Jackson was coming off a 42-carry, 405-yard tour de force for Glenbard North during a brilliant 2013 season in which he rushed 328 times for 3,171 yards.

His workload actually decreased that fall after carrying the ball 420 times as a junior.

Fitzgerald chuckled when reminded of the tweet; Jackson laughed at the memory too.

"He did the same thing," Jackson said.

The Tribune's 2013 Player of the Year's transition from 180-pound high school superstar to Big Ten workhorse was immediate and seamless, if initially unexpected.

Thrust into a competition for playing time as a true freshman by Venric Mark's surprise transfer in August 2014, Jackson has been Northwestern's most important offensive player since.

Two seasons, 557 carries and 2,605 rushing yards later, Fitzgerald is determined to follow his own advice.

Coming off a season in which Jackson managed to rush for 1,418 yards and 4.5 per carry against defenses that had no reason to fear the deep ball, Fitzgerald and Jackson realize less should mean more in 2016.

"I'm hoping I can do that (average less than 26 carries)," Jackson said, "and have a little better efficiency."

Said Fitzgerald: "You can say what you want about last year, and it's over, but everybody in the country, including my 7-year-old son, knew we were running the ball, and we still ran it. I don't think our offense gets enough credit for that. I don't think our offensive line gets enough credit for that.

"We should have more balance, and if we have that, we can be more explosive."

With 13 games and a full camp of first-team reps under his belt, there's every reason to believe sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson will be better this time around.

Even while singing Thorson's praises for the bottom-line results — 10 wins — Fitzgerald acknowledged that the Wildcats sometimes won last fall in spite of Thorson, who completed 50.8 percent of his passes for 1,524 yards with seven touchdowns and nine interceptions.

The better the passing game is, the less pounding the star tailback should have to endure.

"The coaches are showing a lot of confidence in me," Thorson said, "and that is giving me the confidence to just go out and play, let it loose, take some shots, make mistakes and learn from them. That's helped me a lot.

"Last year we didn't have any balance on offense. We've got to improve on that and take a little load off Justin's shoulders."

An improved Thorson probably won't cause the Wildcats to scrap their run-first identity.

RELATED: Northwestern receives five votes in AP preseason top 25

But rather than hand the ball to Jackson 312 times — only Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry of Alabama and runner-up Christian McCaffrey of Stanford carried it more — offensive coordinator Mick McCall figures to utilize backup Warren Long (60 carries, 329 yards) and perhaps explosive redshirt freshman John Moten IV more often.

"I think Warren Long has earned that," Fitzgerald said. "When we went through our self-scout, we didn't play Warren enough. He's definitely going to have a role. We have a pretty solid one-two punch with those guys, and I don't think it will hurt Justin's production at all. I think it will help him."

For his part, Jackson is better equipped to handle the pounding than he was two years ago. He's listed at 193 pounds and noticeably bigger below the neck, and his head has always been a strength.

It would be impossible to reach this level and not think about an NFL career, not be aware of the relatively short shelf life of pro running backs who don't endure the pounding of a 1,300-carry workload in a four-year period of high school and college.

"I do whatever I have to do to help us win," Jackson said. "I've always been like that. I think combined with myself getting better, the offensive line getting better and having a better passing game, we will be more efficient all around.

"It would be easy to get caught up in things like that, but I can't. I am going to do whatever I can for these guys around me. I'm never going to be like, 'I can't get 30 carries because I want to save myself.' That's not how I operate. I don't think anyone on this team would be like that."

This article was written by Mike Helfgot from Chicago Tribune and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.


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