LINCOLN — If you have a pet, you probably know that dogs and cats will eat grass to settle their stomachs. And if you know that, you’ll understand what Justin Jackson meant.
Jackson is the Nebraska football team’s senior center, and he started his first game as a Husker last Saturday. In fact, he had played only briefly in five games during his college career. Oh yes, and he was just put on scholarship for the fall semester, after four years of paying his own way.
So the Norris High School grad had much to process.
He was nervous before the Southern Miss game, understandably so. It was “insane, you know; I wish there was grass around to eat. My stomach was upset,” he said. “I had so many different emotions I’ve never felt before. I was excited to go out, and I was excited to get that first series underway.
“It was a big step. It’s hard to describe until you live it, I guess.”
Wanting to eat grass was a decent description, figuratively speaking. Plus, it would work for a literal description of what Jackson did to some Southern Miss defenders.
On one play in particular, he pulled, got to the outside in front of I-back Ameer Abdullah and buried the defender, made him eat grass — OK, in this case FieldTurf.
Though the passing of quarterback Taylor Martinez was the story of the game, Nebraska rushed for 278 yards and averaged 6.2 yards per carry. Jackson and the Huskers’ other offensive linemen were significant factors in that success. “They worked their tails off,” said Abdullah.
“I’ve got to give special thanks to Justin Jackson making that move.”
The move to which Abdullah referred was from defensive line to center.
It’s a little more complicated than that, however. Jackson began as a defensive lineman and played there until near the end of fall camp a year ago, when he switched to offensive guard. Because of injury problems in the defensive line, particularly at tackle, he moved back to defense late in the season, seeing action in a couple of games. Then, after the Capital One Bowl, he moved to center.
The coaches didn’t tell him he had to move. They asked.
So “I asked them if I had an opportunity to play,” said Jackson. “And they told me it was always an opportunity. How much are you going to work for it and what are you going to do?”
What he did was win the starting job in competition with junior Cole Pensick and sophomore walk-on Mark Pelini. “We all work together, and I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without Mark and Cole,” Jackson said. “It’s unbelievable how big of a help they’ve been.
“Being the competitor I am, if someone was gunning for my spot sometimes, I don’t know how much I would help them out. I’ve learned a lot of my leadership skills from them because, I promise you, I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without them.”
He also wouldn’t be where he’s at without an intensity that has earned him comparisons to former Husker offensive guard Ricky Henry, with whom he roomed for three years.
“We call him ‘Junior,’ ‘Jr. Ricky Henry,’ ” sophomore guard Spencer Long said.
After the Southern Miss game, offensive line coach Barney Cotton was asked if it helped having someone “cerebral” at center when playing an opponent about which little was known.
“First of all, I don’t know if anybody would call Justin Jackson ‘cerebral,’ ” said Cotton.
Jackson plays with the energy and emotion of a defensive lineman, which stands to reason, of course. At center, “I feel like I have to be so much more assignment-sound,” he said a few days before the opener. “I have a lot of problems when I’m ‘tracking’ the (line)backers and I see the first backer flash across my face; I want to kill it, you know? I’ve gotta be patient and realize that’s my backside tackle’s backer; mine’s going to be coming. My instinct is to see other color and wanting to get rid of it.
“That’s my biggest thing is just to slow down and be patient for things to happen.”
That same day he was asked what starting the opener would mean.
“It’d mean the world to me,” he said. “That’s what I’ve been working for, for five years. You show up every day and you practice, you put in time in the film and the weight room. It would mean everything to anybody in this building. That’s what we work for. That’s what we want to do.
“Words can’t describe what it would mean to me.”
He gave it a good shot after living it, though.
Mike Babcock writes about Husker football.