COSTA MESA, Calif. — Los Angeles Chargers running back Justin Jackson darted down the sideline on a wheel route, accelerated past linebacker Cory Littleton and hauled in a pass from Philip Rivers for a score during a recent joint practice between the Bolts and Los Angeles Rams
The explosive play was a good example of Jackson’s shiftiness and accelerated development in his second season with the team.
“He’s a creative runner,” backfield mate Austin Ekeler said. “He’s a unique runner. There aren’t many people I’ve seen, in general, that run like he does. Like I tell him, he’s got that razzle-dazzle, some hocus-pocus [laughs] — I make up all these different things. That’s how he runs, and that’s how I’d describe his runs because you really don’t know what he’s going to do.”
— Los Angeles Chargers (@Chargers) August 1, 2019
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco said Jackson is part of his team’s emergency plan if holdout Melvin Gordon doesn’t show up for the start of the regular season.
Gordon is in the final year of a rookie contract that is scheduled to pay him $5.6 million, but he wants a new deal that puts him among the highest-paid running backs in the league. With no new deal at this point, Gordon through his representation demanded a trade, but the Chargers are unwilling to move him — for now.
Telesco will get a look at his team’s alternatives during the Bolts’ first preseason game on the road against the Arizona Cardinals on Thursday.
At the center of Chargers’ plan to replace Gordon is Jackson, a seventh-round selection in the 2018 draft out of Northwestern with a productive history.
Jackson ran for more than 1,000 yards four straight seasons for the Wildcats, and he finished as Northwestern’s all-time leader in rushing yards (5,440), rushing touchdowns (41), all-purpose yards (6,298) and total touchdowns (42). He also holds the career rushing record (6,531 yards) at GleNBArd North High in Carole Stream, Illinois.
“It’s been good,” Jackson said about his second NFL training camp. “I’ve just kind of honed in and focused up. I’m taking advantage of every single rep.
“I feel like I have a lot of room to grow. This is what training camp is for, really getting your body and mind prepared for a grueling season, but also to earn the trust of your coaches and your teammates, go out there and have fun and just ball out.”
Jackson went on to say he’s playing faster — a product of the work he put in this offseason, knowing the playbook, understanding his reads and what the defense is trying to do to him before the ball is snapped.
A former NFL running back, Chargers coach Anthony Lynn likes Jackson’s instincts, and will give him first crack to help fill the void left by Gordon.
“When you study Justin, he’s been productive his whole life,” Lynn said. “He’s never really had the height, weight, speed thing going for him, but if you look at his production — it’s there. High school, college and when I believe his NFL career is over, that it’ll be there as well.”
Jackson said he likes the fact that Lynn keeps a watchful eye on his position group.
“He’s in the meeting room — he’s everywhere,” Jackson said, laughing. “It helps. It gives us a different view on certain things, and he has his little nuggets of WISdom on certain things that he always gives us.
“But also the more he’s around you, the more he gets to know you. The more he is watching you, the more you have a chance to impress. It’s having a guy’s voice there that’s been there and done it.”
Jackson had to fight to make the team as a rookie last season, missing most of training camp with a hamstring injury. He spent the first month of the regular season on the practice squad, and was signed to the active roster in Week 4.
Late in the season, however, with Gordon nursing a knee injury, Jackson had a breakout performance in a come-from-behind, 33-30 win on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He totaled 63 yards on eight carries, including an 18-yard touchdown run for a score in the second half of that game, and also recorded a 19-yard reception.
Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt praised Jackson’s work ethic, vision and production last season when Gordon was hurt.
“His work in the offseason has shown he’s a legitimate guy,” Whisenhunt said. “He works hard at it. He’s very smart. He’s got this field vision that is unique for him. He sees a lot, and knows what’s going on out there.”
Even though he is not here, Jackson said he has stayed in touch with Gordon.
“He has talked to us all separately, talked to us before camp,” Jackson said. “Obviously, he has to do what he has to do. We’re holding it down until he gets back, but we all love him. He’s a part of this room — he knows that and we all know that. We’ll interact with him on social media too. He’s always keeping it light, keeping it funny.
“That’s just the type of guy he is. He’s a great leader. We are just waiting for him to get back, but until then we’re all just trying to carve out a piece of where we might fit into this offense.”