Iowa MLB Josey Jewell reflects on his path from recruiting afterthought to national star. Chad Leistikow/Hawk Central
Once days away from deciding to play for Luther College in his hometown of Decorah, Josey Jewell has now etched his name into the Big Ten Conference history books.
The Iowa linebacker on Thursday was named the Big Ten's defensive player of the year, becoming just the second Hawkeye — joining Leroy Smith in 1991 — to earn that distinction.
With their votes, the conference’s media and coaches agreed: No Big Ten defender was better than Jewell in 2017.
“Josey is not only one of the best linebackers we've ever had here,” Iowa 19th-year coach Kirk Ferentz said prior to last week’s 56-14 win against Nebraska, in which Jewell had an interception, “but one of the best football players we've had.”
Jewell, Iowa’s first-ever three-time captain, led the league with 123 tackles despite missing one game, a 17-10 overtime loss at Northwestern. His 13½ tackles for loss tied for fifth in the league, and he collected two interceptions along with 11 passes defended as a ball-hawking middle linebacker for the 7-5 Hawkeyes.
Iowa was famously Jewell’s only full-ride scholarship offer. Jewell has said that Northern Iowa, an FCS program, offered him book money. So he was about to stay home and play with his older brother at the Division III level until Iowa assistant Reese Morgan convinced Ferentz to take a chance on Jewell.
“I've learned to listen to Reese, as subtle as he is. But if he says it … a couple times, there's something that he knows that I don't know,” Ferentz said recently. “And my feeling about Josey was at the end of the day, if nothing else, he'd play fullback. He'd make our team — kind of like Bob Sanders (in the early 2000s) — tougher and make us better that way.”
He certainly did, with his first eye-catching moment as a Hawkeye when he was the only Iowa defender flying around and playing like it was the Big Ten title game in the 2015 TaxSlayer Bowl. Then a redshirt freshman, Jewell came off the bench to record 14 tackles in a humbling 45-28 loss to Tennessee. He's been a Hawkeye fixture on defense ever since.
Jewell on Wednesday was also named the league’s Butkus-Fitzgerald linebacker of the year — ironic because he was notably left off the list of five finalists for the Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker even though he was a finalist as a junior. (Jewell did recently get named winner of the 2017 Jack Lambert Award, also given to college football’s top linebacker.)
Jewell will make his 43rd career start in Iowa’s bowl game, which will become known Sunday. He has 426 career tackles, nine short of tying Brad Quast (1986-89) for fourth in program history.
“It’s been a crazy one. One that I maybe didn’t expect,” Jewell said this week during a Big Ten Network interview. “But it’s been a fun ride.”
Jackson honored, too
Jewell had to beat out a teammate to win the Big Ten’s defensive award. But Josh Jackson and his seven interceptions weren’t shut out Thursday. The Iowa junior was named the Big Ten’s Tatum-Woodson defensive back of the year.
Jackson, who leads the country with 25 passes defended, is the third Hawkeye to win that award — joining Micah Hyde in 2012 and Desmond King in 2015. Both of those previous winners are now starring in the NFL, which is where Jackson could be headed after a star-studded season. He has not decided whether he will leave school and enter the NFL Draft. Jackson is on track to graduate in May.
Jewell and Jackson on Tuesday were named to the Big Ten's first-team defense. Jackson has already been named winner of the Jack Tatum Award and remains one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award. Both awards honor the nation's top defensive back.