IOWA CITY — A year ago August, Josh Jackson was beaten out for the nickel corner spot by a true freshman.
Last August, Jackson was a first-year starter at cornerback for the Hawkeyes. By week 3, he had a pair of interceptions. By week 8, he had 15 pass breakups. And by now you know Jackson was one of the best defensive backs in the country this season.
Jackson didn’t win the Thorpe Award on Thursday night. That went to Alabama safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. But consider this: Jackson wasn’t on the list of semifinalists. He was added, well, because he leads the nation in stuff and has been absolutely elite at his position in 2017.
Going into the bowl season, Jackson, a junior from Corinth, Texas, is tied for the nation’s lead with seven interceptions. Coincidentally, he shares that distinction with Boston College’s Lukas Denis. Iowa (7-5) and the Eagles (7-5) will face off in the Pinstripe Bowl in less than three weeks.
Jackson leads the nation in passes defended with 25, five ahead of second place. Jackson is tied for second in the nation in pass breakups with 18.
Jackson left Wednesday for The Home Depot College Football Awards Show in Atlanta. He’s soaking in a little bit of the history.
“It’s a big accomplishment for me to see the things that Jim Thorpe did and what it is to be named a finalist to receive such a great award,” Jackson said. “I think it’s really cool and awesome and I’m happy to be involved.”
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Jackson and linebacker Josey Jewell have been hip-to-hip during the awards season. Both were first-team all-Big Ten picks. Jewell was the Big Ten defensive player of the year. Jackson was the B1G’s defensive back of the year.
Both were first-team Walter Camp all-Americans. Both might have a shot at consensus all-American portraits in the big room at the Hansen Performance Complex. (For that honor, a Hawkeye has to be named an all-American by at least three of these five voting organizations; Walter Camp, Associated Press, FWAA, Sporting News, and AFCA.)
“I’m also very confident that both of them are going to get all-America recognition, which is a really fitting tribute to two very different career paths, if you will,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Josey was an established player, established starter, and Josh was a first-year starter. Both outstanding stories and just pleased for those guys.”
OK so now the question.
Jackson is a fourth-year junior. He’s a physical therapy major and he’s scheduled to graduate in May. And, yes, you’re seeing more and more NFL mock drafts that list Jackson as a first rounder.
He sees the question coming from a mile away. Are you going to go pro?
“I’ve thought about it a little bit, but not too much,” Jackson said. “I’m still kind of deciding. I haven’t made a final decision yet, but I’ve been thinking about it.”
Jackson will turn 22 in early April. That’s more than old enough for the NFL. Underclassmen have until Jan. 15, 2018, to file declaration papers with the league. The official list of underclassmen accepted by the NFL will be released to NFL teams on Jan. 19.
Iowa coaches have told Jackson to “enjoy the process.”
Iowa has gone 2-for-2 in recent Hawkeyes who made that NFL/stay-in-school decision. Offensive lineman Brandon Scherff stuck around for his senior year and won the Outland Trophy before being a first-round pick with the Washington Redskins. You’ll always ask yourself if cornerback Desmond King lost money by returning to Iowa for his senior year after winning the Thorpe Award as a junior.
One difference between Jackson and King was Jackson should have his degree. King graduated his senior year.
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“It has some effect,” Jackson said of the decision and the degree coming at the same time. “I just want to keep pushing forward.”
King called it a determining factor in his decision to return to Iowa. King, of course, was a fifth-round pick with the Los Angeles Chargers. He has 46 tackles, three sacks and an interception this season.
“What I’ve told them, and I’ll tell our guys who are in that category right now is that you’ve already won the game,” Ferentz said. “In effect. You’re a really good player. When you’re 26, you’re going to be playing in the NFL, which Desmond is going to be doing, same with Brandon. It’s really nice in life when you get to do what you want to do.
“But it’s like recruiting. I always tell recruits: It’s not my job to decide what’s best for you because how the heck would I know? I think that ultimately has got to be up to the individual, and we don’t want anybody staying here if they are not (all in with) both feet in the ground.”
By the way, Ferentz intimated that more Hawkeyes than Jackson are wrestling with early NFL draft decisions. True junior center James Daniels might be the most logical player with this possibility.
“I think we’ve probably got a couple guys that have some thinking to do,” Ferentz said. “Biggest thing is just get them good, factual information, so they know what they are deciding on instead of speculating, that type of thing.”
Agents are calling and, judging on the amount of interest the Jewells have fielded, it can be hectic. So, the all-American who was a wide receiver for a little while in 2015 and a No. 4 corner at the beginning of 2016 has drafted some help.
His mom, Vanessa, is taking the calls.
“She’s been really good in helping me out and helping me stay focused,” Jackson said. “She’s been a big part of it. She’s working with me and helping me out. She’s taken most of the calls. She’s been the force behind this.”
Moms usually are.
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