Utah Utes backup quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson mostly stood on the sidelines for the first two games of the 2022 season aching to somehow, some way get more time on the field. But as long as Cam Rising was healthy and doing Cam Rising things, those opportunities would likely end up coming only in garbage time of a blowout.
Then running back Chris Curry suffered a season-ending ankle injury. And Jackson, who played some running back at Duncanville High School in Texas, unexpectedly found himself with a way in.
In the middle of last week, coaches asked Jackson to step in among Tavion Thomas, Jaylon Glover and Micah Bernard. Despite not playing running back since his sophomore year, Jackson stepped up with 31 yards on nine carries and a touchdown in No. 12 Utah’s win over Arizona State.
Finding playing time due to injury is never ideal. But Jackson seems revivified by the opportunity.
“I found my joy again,” Jackson said Monday. “I’m just going to leave it that.”
The running back situation at Utah right now is interesting to say the least. Thomas was benched in the first half against the Sun Devils, but retains his pole position in the depth chart. Glover has leapfrogged Bernard, and Jackson is being thrown into the mix.
Fortunately for the Utes, Jackson’s prior experience at running back is helping make the transition smoother.
“It’s been a few years, but he’s had that experience in the position and the workload as a full-time starter at that position,” coach Kyle Whittingham said. “So I don’t know if it’s like riding a bike, but he’ll draw upon that.”
Jackson himself said playing running back comes naturally to him. What he needs to do going forward, though, is get up to speed on the finer details — footwork, blitz pickups, relearning how to take a handoff, etc.
Additionally, running backs coach Quinton Ganther said, Jackson will need to learn how to see the game a different way.
“The challenge is getting out of that quarterback mindset and getting into a running back mindset,” Ganther said. “Even with him playing the position in high school and earlier in his career, he didn’t look at it as the lens that I try to get these guys to see it from.”
Jackson said his quarterback brain gives him a sizable advantage when switching positions because there is “a lot of stuff that running backs don’t see that I see.”
What teammates see in Jackson is a player who can excel at any position.
“He’s an athlete,” tight end Dalton Kincaid said. “You could put him anywhere on the field.”
Jackson expects to make plays out of the backfield for the remainder of the season. Whittingham has publicly suggested the same, and wants him to continue improving at that position.
“We expect him to take another step forward this week and, as the weeks progress, just continue to get better and better,” Whittingham said.
Changing positions is difficult, period — let alone doing so in the throes of a season. But Jackson didn’t mind because now he’s back on the field, and the smile is back on his face.