LINCOLN — Center Justin Jackson was grabbing his left shoulder and trying to lift himself off the turf during Nebraska's second-to-last drive at Michigan State two weeks ago when NU's coaches started yelling in his direction.
“Stay down! Stay down!”
Easier said than done. That's not exactly part of Jackson's nature.
The former walk-on is Nebraska's starting center because while on the football field, he refuses to stand still — determined to outhustle the man across from him and always willing to jump at even the most remote chance at proving he belongs.
Pain consumed Jackson's shoulder in that moment at Michigan State, but he didn't want to waste time. His team was trying to come back. He wanted to get back in the game.
“My shoulder slipped out. It was out of socket and I wanted someone to put it back in,” Jackson said “It was kind of chaotic.”
Nebraska coaches were encouraging Jackson to get medical attention on the field first. The short break could also give backup center Cole Pensick a chance to quickly practice a few snaps.
But Jackson “didn't want to lay down on the field,” coach Bo Pelini said last week.
Typical of Jackson.
He's a confident and hard-working senior and he's always anticipated that he'd eventually earn a role like the one he currently holds. Since fifth grade, really. Jackson had the same dream as nearly every Nebraska kid who's been fitted for football pads: He wanted to be a Husker.
|MORE BIG RED TODAY UPDATES|
|Want the latest Husker headlines delivered straight to your inbox? Sign up for email alerts!|
“It's safe to say, at some point in your career, you'll have an opportunity. It's what you do with it,” Jackson said. “It may not comes as easy as others, it may not come when you expect it. But when you get it, you better be ready. You've always got to prepare yourself as if you could get that shot.”
That's why Jackson, who spent three years at defensive tackle for the Huskers, volunteered to move to offensive guard as a junior two weeks into preseason camp in 2011. “I didn't hardly know what I was doing,” he said. But Jackson worked with the second team until some banged-up teammates got healthy and overtook him on the depth chart.
He soon switched to center and spent half the season on the scout team before injuries decimated Nebraska's defensive tackle position. One practice in late October, assistant coach John Papuchis remembers needing a fourth D-tackle so he could field two full units. He yelled for Jackson.
“He was wearing a different color jersey, but he went in there,” Papuchis said. “By Northwestern (10 days later), he was in the game.”
Jackson then found a new home during the offseason, agreeing to help provide depth behind the expected starter at center, Cole Pensick. Jackson's reps last spring were his first at center since his freshman year at Norris High School in Firth, Neb.
But Jackson eventually won the job. He was awarded with a scholarship in August. He's missed one snap with the first-team offense this year (when his shoulder dislocated in the fourth quarter at Michigan State).
Asked to reflect on his career and his accomplishments, Jackson said Monday that he won't do that until January.
Jackson did admit that his first-half performance against the Spartans was the “best I've played.” But there are so many areas for improvement — technique, mid-play vision, snap consistency, communication — that Jackson prefers not to interrupt the routine.
Stay focused. Play hard.
“It's why I play. It's what I feel like I can control,” Jackson said. “Some people may be two inches taller than me. Some people may be 40 pounds heavier than me. But the one thing you can control is your effort. I've always taken it upon myself to play as hard as I can.”
Contact the writer:
402-473-9585, email@example.com; twitter.com/JonNyatawa
* * *
>> Video: See this week's edition of "The Big Red Today Show":
>> Video: See Tuesday's Husker football practice highlights: