By Pete Ruden
Josh Jackson’s phenomenal season in his first year as a starter almost never happened.
When he came to Iowa, the coaches had an idea for the Corinth, Texas, native: move him to wide receiver, where he had 9 touchdown catches as a senior in high school.
It made sense at the time, given the Hawkeyes were low in depth at receiver and Jackson had experience making plays on offense.
But the experiment didn’t last long, and Jackson went back to cornerback, which he prefers.
“I feel like I can play both, but I think defense is more fitting for me,” Jackson said. “Just to be athletic, and be able to go try to catch balls on the back end, and force turnovers. I like defense, it’s fun.”
The switch back has paid off.
Through nine games, Jackson leads the nation in passes defended (20) and ranks second in pass breakups (15) and interceptions (5).
Despite not getting a chance to show what he can really do on the field until this season, Jackson has been tormenting offenses all season long on his way to receiving national recognition.
Iowa defensive back Joshua Jackson (15) celebrates after a stop during an NCAA football game between Iowa and Wyoming in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. The Hawkeyes defeated Wyoming, 24-3. (Joseph Cress/The Daily Iowan)
Early in his college career, Jackson learned from one of the best cornerbacks in Iowa history.
In 2015 and 2016, Desmond King made opposing quarterbacks fear throwing the ball anywhere near him.
King was the star of the secondary. A winner of the Thorpe Award, given to the best defensive back in the country, he went on to be drafted by the Los Angeles Chargers, where he has recorded 27 tackles and 2 pass breakups.
His 8 interceptions in 2015, which ranked second in the nation and tied a school record, proved he was a lockdown cornerback and earned him the Thorpe Award. Fans didn’t have to worry about his side of the field in 2016 very often, because offenses barely threw his way.
For whatever reason, quarterbacks have not learned their lesson yet with Jackson, and they have continued throwing his way despite what he’s done so far this season.
The same thing happened to King in 2015. And like King, Jackson’s play has put him into award consideration; he is now a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award, presented to the best defensive player in the nation.
The similarities between Jackson and King stand out, where a lot of people see them.
“He definitely is [like King],” said linebacker Josey Jewell, who is also a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award. “Really a shutdown corner, so I think they both have something in common there.”
While following King’s example and taking everything in helped Jackson in big ways, he still had to learn his game for himself.
“The mental reps were good watching them,” Jackson said. “You obviously have to get reps on the field to really understand what it’s like to play. You watch them, and see all the techniques that they do, and you have to feel out what they do, but when you get on the field, it’s a little bit different because you have to go through and learn your technique, learn your craft and what works for you.”
Jackson’s legend has been growing all season, and it began with a bang. He opened the season with a big performance and has maintained that level of play.
Facing one of the top NFL prospects at the time, quarterback Josh Allen, the Hawkeye defense remained strong, holding the Wyoming signal caller to just 174 yards passing while forcing him into 2 interceptions.
After making a huge pass breakup on a deep play to keep the Cowboys out of the game, Jackson put the icing on the cake by picking off his first pass of the season.
Even though that was a special game for Jackson, the battle against Minnesota on Oct. 28 sticks out even more.
With the Gophers threatening, Jackson batted away a pass that was then intercepted by safety Jake Gervase in the end zone. The junior went on to knock away 4 passes to increase what was his national lead.
Still, that wasn’t Jackson’s best game of the season.
With No. 3 Ohio State coming into Kinnick Stadium last week, Jackson finally made his name known on a national stage, if it wasn’t already. He picked off Buckeye quarterback J.T. Barrett three times in Iowa’s 55-24 upset; Barrett had only thrown 1 interception in the eight previous games.
Jackson’s high level of play affects his teammates every single game. While he certainly racks up some incredible stats, his lockdown mentality makes the rest of the defensive players step up their games.
“Josh actually ups the level of play from the secondary,” fellow cornerback Manny Rugamba said. “We all want to match each other, and we’re all competing to be the best that we can, so when we see one guy doing well, we all want to do well. So I wouldn’t say it takes pressure off, I would say that it kind of brings up the intensity throughout the secondary.”
With his play this year, Jackson has a chance to forgo his senior season and enter the NFL Draft; his draft stock has never been higher.
Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson makes a jumping one-handed interception during Iowa’s game against Ohio State at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017. Jackson made three interceptions on the day as the Hawkeyes defeated the Buckeyes 55 to 24. (Nick Rohlman/The Daily Iowan)
Jackson’s breakout season landed him on Pro Football Focus’ first mock draft, going in the first round to the Atlanta Falcons at No. 24 overall. His vertical game and ball skills give him a chance to make it at the next level.
A 3-interception game against one of college football’s best quarterbacks will give someone that status.
But to come from rarely seeing the field on the defensive side of the ball to becoming a bona fide NFL prospect in less than one season as a starter is something rare. He has shown flashes in the past, but Jackson’s quick improvement is really something to marvel at.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz saw something special in him in 2015, but the growth to get to the level he’s at now is almost unparalleled.
“The biggest thing with him, and I said this back in August, I thought he seemed to be one of our more improved players on our football team,” Ferentz said. “Josh has always been a talented guy, but that maturation process players have to go through. He’s worked hard in the out-of-season program. He’s a couple years into the right program now. I think he knows his position a little bit better, the expectations of what we’re looking for, and he’s done a great job of playing defensive football for us.”
Whether he racks up 4 pass breakups or 3 picks in a game, he has continued to do what he does best: blanketing opposing receivers and frustrating offenses around the Big Ten.
It’s notable to point out he had only started one game in his career before the season started. However, he is certainly making the most of his playing time now.
It’s safe to say the coaches are relieved they moved Jackson back to defensive back.
Jackson’s journey — from a short-lived stint at wide receiver to backing up a program great to becoming a star — has been fueled by his work ethic. While his play this season might have shocked some fans, the same can’t be said about the rest of the team or Jackson himself.
“I wouldn’t say I’m really surprised,” he said. “I worked out and worked hard this whole off-season. I’ve been working hard ever since I’ve been here. I wouldn’t say I’m really surprised. It’s my job. It’s what I’m supposed to do … I just want to make sure I can come in each day and do my job to the best of my ability.”