Faith, confidence and trust.
Those traits were instrumental in former walk-on Justin Jackson’s surprising rise to No. 1 on the Nebraska football depth chart, and they’re the same ones Jackson knows are important to excel at his new position.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Jackson, a native of Roca and graduate of Norris High School, will start at center Saturday when Nebraska opens the season against Southern Miss at Memorial Stadium.
“I always knew I could play for this university, and I’ve always kind of had a chip on my shoulder,” said Jackson, who was surrounded by 15 reporters after practice this week.
“I always had confidence … I’m never going to look back … I don’t consider myself a second-rate athlete because I walked on. I consider it that I took a different road than other people.”
Jackson, of course, isn’t the first Husker to follow this path. His story is another chapter in a book that’s been the backbone of Nebraska’s program for decades.
“Love the guy,” Nebraska assistant coach John Garrison said. “He’s everything that Nebraska football is all about. Hard worker. He’s going to give you 100 percent. He’s not going to let you down. And when he does, it kills him.”
A former defensive lineman, Jackson switched to offense in spring practices. He switched to offense early last season for the first time, but went back to defense in October when injuries depleted depth along the interior line.
When coaches approached Jackson about moving to offense again, he had one question for them:
Will he have an opportunity to play?
“And they told me it was always an opportunity,” Jackson said. “How much are you going to work for it and what are you going to do? And I went. There was a lot of depth on D-line, a lot of good players, and, I don’t know, I just felt like I could fit in good with the O-line.”
Nebraska was looking to replace center Mike Caputo, and Jackson gained an edge over Cole Pensick and walk-on Mark Pelini.
The reason, partly, was Jackson’s fiery approach to the game. More than one teammate has compared him to former Husker lineman Ricky Henry, with whom Jackson roomed for three years.
“He has that attitude that, ‘I’m going to get you, I’m going to find a way to get you, whatever it takes to get you,’” linebacker Alonzo Whaley said of Jackson. “There’s not too many nasty guys out there like Ricky Henry, but he has that same kind of attitude.”
Jackson said he views such a comparison as an honor, although he likes to think of himself as his own player.
There’s no doubt, however, that a Henry-like attitude has helped push Jackson to the front.
“I’ve always had it playing,” Jackson said. “I’m not the best athlete, I’m not the biggest guy; you’ve got to find a way to separate yourself, and that’s my edge. It’s just what I’ve always done.
“I’ve always wanted to outwork people. I play harder than everybody that’s with me. That’s my edge, and it’s helped put me in the spot that I am today.”
Now that he’s there, Jackson must somewhat channel his energy and his defensive-minded approach. Along the offensive line, patience is key.
“I have a lot of problems when I’m tracking the 'backers and I see the first 'backer flash across my face, I want to kill it, you know? And I’ve got to be patient and realize that’s my backside tackle’s 'backer; mine’s going to be coming,” Jackson said.
“You don’t want to work outside the scheme. And you don’t want to do more than your part. You’ve got to take care of your assignment and do it to the best of your ability, and you’ve got to trust. The big thing on offense is you’ve got to trust that the guys next to you are doing their job, too. Don’t try to do too much.”
Jackson said that Garrison is “by far” the most influential person he’s had in the Nebraska program, noting he was the first coach he’d spent substantial time with, when Garrison was a scout-team coach and Jackson was on the defensive line.
“I feel that we’ve had a really, really good relationship all the way through my career, and, you know, he coaches me and he has high expectations and he pushes me,” Jackson said. “And I wouldn’t be anywhere I’m at today without him or Coach (Barney) Cotton. They mean the world to me. They gave me a shot.”