Brandon Jackson emerged from a deep Nebraska backfield to catch the eyes of NFL scouts
The Nebraska Cornhuskers haven't had a running back drafted since 2001, when Correll Buckhalter went to Philadelphia in the fourth round and fullback Dan Alexander went to Tennessee in the sixth. No Husker back has been selected on the first day of the draft since 1998 when Ahman Green, the eventual star in Green Bay, was taken by Seattle in the third round.
As recently as last September, it didn't appear as if that drought was going to end any time soon. And though, at the time, Nebraska coaches were sorting through four intriguing backs, it certainly didn't appear as if Brandon Jackson would be the one to emerge as an offensive lynchpin and an NFL candidate.
Seriously…five games into what would prove to be his third and final season in Lincoln, Jackson had a grand total of 596 rushing yards on 130 carries as a Cornhusker. By all appearances, he was the fourth option in a four-headed backfield that also included Cody Glenn, Marlon Lucky and Kenny Wilson. In Nebraska's season opener against Louisiana Tech, for instance, Glenn had 13 carries for 88 yards, Lucky had 13 carries for 79 yards and Wilson had 15 carries for 55 yards. Even though Jackson had a 25-yard touchdown run in that game, he was handed the ball just three times.
Two games later, Wilson had 19 carries and Lucky had 10 in a loss to USC, but even though Glenn was left out of the rotation, Jackson still only had two totes. In the Huskers' fifth game, against Kansas, it was 13 carries for Lucky, seven for Glenn and four each for Wilson and Jackson.
Nebraska beat Kansas in overtime but lost the USC game, 28-10, and was held 102 yards below its 2006 average of 170 rushing yards per contest against the Trojans. If Jackson felt a bit underused after that game, the Cornhuskers' only loss in a 6-1 start, he kept it to himself and remained focused on the next outing. Later, looking back over the afternoons during which he felt under-utilized, such as the season-ending loss to Auburn in the Cotton Bowl, Jackson admitted to a bit of frustration.
But, he said, "You've just got to make the best out of every opportunity you have."
Jackson's big opportunity would come with the turning of the calendar to October, which would in turn start an unexpected countdown on his college career. He became the starter for Game Six against Iowa State and immediately turned 22 carries into 120 yards and a touchdown in Nebraska's blowout victory. Even though Glenn would also gain 149 yards and score twice on 19 carries in that win, Jackson would hold on to the starting job for the remainder of the year, gaining an eye-opening 835 yards over the last nine contests.
In the Cotton Bowl, Lucky got the bulk of the carries – 25 for 96 yards to Jackson's seven for 35 – but Jackson's potential was well-established by then. The NFL's advisory council projected him as a low second-round pick, according to Jackson, and he thus decided to leave for the professional ranks after his junior season. That was quite a three-month development for a young man who was once considered little more than a third-down back amid that crowded backfield.
Some mock drafts have Jackson going as deep as the end of the third round, but it seems clear that there is no strong consensus as to who is going to emerge as the best bet among such prospects as Jackson, Auburn's Kenny Irons, Arizona's Chris Henry, Florida State's Lorenzo Booker, Penn State's Tony Hunt and injured Louisville star Michael Bush. That's a group among which Jackson feels he can hold his own.
"The decision [to skip his senior season] was based upon the guys who were coming out this year and the opportunity that I had, and me having a good season," said Jackson. "There are not a lot of backs coming out and I feel like I had a great year."
The 5-11, 210-pound Jackson isn't really big or small by NFL standards, but he can absorb a hit, keep his pads low and bounce off for extra yards. He has an extra gear when he gets outside the tackles but also has a feel for running lanes in the trenches. He claims to be comfortable in just about any offensive system.
"I'm a very versatile guy as far as catching the ball, running inside and outside," said Jackson, selling his case. "I'm a great blocker and a very good special teams guy. I started off as a third-down back out of the four of us [at Nebraska], so I know how to block."
He knows how to move, too. Scouts don't question his quick feet or his assortment of moves when facing a would-be tackler in the open field. The obvious question for Jackson is, has he played enough to adequately prove himself? As impressive as he was from October through December last fall, Jackson doesn't have an extensive college resume on which he can fall back.
Chances are, that won't be a problem. NFL teams know how to evaluate talent, no matter how long the exposure. Jackson believes he'll get a call on the first day of the draft.
"My coach back at Nebraska tells me a lot of teams are calling him and doing background checks and stuff like that," he said. "How all this stuff is going, you really don't know who's interested."
Soon enough, Jackson will know.