Ja’Quinden Jackson’s ankle has been bothering him all season. Will Utah shut him down now?

With the Utes essentially eliminated from Pac-12 title contention, the sophomore running back could theoretically be held out of the team’s remaining games to get his lingering sprain on the mend.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Ja'Quinden Jackson (3) eludes Arizona State Sun Devils defensive back Shamari Simmons (7) during their game against the Arizona State Sun Devils in NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023.

In the lead-up to the Washington game, Utah football coach Kyle Whittingham was speaking of Ja’Quinden Jackson’s fortitude, noting that the running back had been dealing with an ankle sprain for months, but kept gutting it out and trying to give what he had.

“[He’s] exceptionally tough. First of all, he has battled it all season long, and he just keeps coming back. It’s a process of, during the week, he gets it as good as he can get it, then on game day he just lets it rip until he can’t go anymore,” Whittingham said then. “We’ll see about this week and what his availability is — right now it’s a question mark.”

Jackson did play, even scoring a pair of touchdowns in the Utes’ 35-28 loss.

But he was also clearly hobbled, carrying only 10 times for a meager total of 29 yards. He didn’t have a gain longer than seven yards, and he was infamously swarmed in the end zone for what would prove a pivotal safety at the end of the third quarter.

The Utes’ third conference loss of the season not only eliminated them from Pac-12 title contention, but also sparked an intriguing question:

Is it time now to start sitting players like Jackson out?

First of all, it should be noted that the running back himself is ambivalent about the idea.

While he was hesitant even to admit initially that he’s less than full strength — “Um, I’m alright,” he said when asked about his physical health — he ultimately hinted that’s not totally the case. “This is how it’s going to be ‘til the end of the season, I guess,” he conceded.

When asked what keeps him going out on the field even when he’s clearly hurting, he noted that he takes pride in both his toughness and in being there for his teammates.

“My family — we didn’t raise no weaklings,” Jackson said. “Just trying to be there for the team. … I’m hungry — I’m hungry for the game, hungry for us to win.”

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Ja'Quinden Jackson before game action between the Utah Utes and the UCLA Bruins at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023.

Jackson has appeared in nine of Utah’s 10 games, sitting out the Utes’ Sept. 29 loss to Oregon State. And he’s surpassed 100 yards rushing in three games (129 at Baylor, 117 at USC, and 111 vs. Arizona State). However, owing to that lingering ankle sprain, Utah’s bell-cow back has only topped 20 carries twice (against Cal and USC), while being limited to single-digit carries on three attempts (five vs. Florida, nine vs. Weber State, and six against UCLA).

He has a team-high 122 carries for a team-high 627 yards, and is averaging an excellent 5.1 yards per carry — but considering he was at 6.8 a year ago, it just reinforces the idea that he’s been out there playing at far less than 100% (though the Utes’ unsettled QB situation has also played a significant role in that).

Whittingham, however, pretty flatly shot down the notion of sitting Jackson out to get an early jump on getting him completely right physically, noting that if a player is deemed healthy enough to play, he’ll play.

So it’s not even a consideration, then?

“No, not at all,” Whittingham said. “We would never let a record or wins and losses dictate that. The safety of a player, the health of the player — if he feels good to go and he’s ready, then we go. And so that doesn’t enter into the equation. It’s completely dependent upon the safety of the player and where he is physically and how ready he is.”

Jackson’s teammates, meanwhile, marveled as his ability to continue going out there, in spite of being clearly limited.

“Yeah, dude’s just an absolute warrior. He’s been getting banged up a little bit, having to sit out some games or some plays, and he just keeps battling back and doing what’s best for the team — and that’s him being out there,” said quarterback Bryson Barnes. “He just keeps being diligent and hard-working in the training room, and it feels good to have him out there on the field.”

Wide receiver Money Parks, asked what stood out about Jackson’s efforts of late, focused on his willpower and dedication.

“His grit, his toughness, his love for the game, his love for our football team — the Ute football team,” said Parks. “He’s out there putting his body on the line for us.”

When it was noted that now is the time of year when collegiate players begin considering their future, including the option of the transfer portal, the sophomore was asked if he was doing the same.

Still frustrated by the Utes’ loss to the Huskies, and frustrated further by his painful ankle, the running back considered the question for a few silent moments before giving a cautious reply.

“I haven’t really thought about it much or talked about it,” he said. “We shall see.”