Josh Jackson puts off NFL talk to focus on anchoring Iowa secondary

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Josh Jackson wants Senior Day to be for the Iowa seniors alone.

Sure, the cornerstone of Iowa’s secondary may also be playing his last game at Kinnick Stadium at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, even though he’s a junior. But that’s not where Jackson’s focus is this week.

“I try not to look at it that way,” Jackson said Tuesday. “I love playing at Kinnick, and I love the fans here. It’s a joy to be in Iowa City and just play for this university.”

You might remember what Josh Jackson did the last time he played at Kinnick Stadium. The Iowa cornerback intercepted three Ohio State passes, including this one when he stepped in front of tight end Marcus Baugh. What can he possibly do for an encore Saturday against Purdue? Stay tuned.

No one is playing better for Iowa than Jackson this season, and that’s a surprise in itself. What’s more remarkable that Jackson is outperforming every cornerback in America.

He leads the nation in interceptions with seven and passes defended with 23. His past three weeks are a study in excellence as he's kept finding ways to somehow one-up himself, stacking amazing performance on top of amazing performance.

There were the four pass breakups in a 17-10 win over Minnesota, followed by three interceptions in a 55-24 upset of Ohio State, followed by two pick-sixes in Saturday’s 38-14 loss at Wisconsin.

Jackson was the only Iowa highlight in that last one. And his NFL Draft stock keeps soaring.

“I’ve really been trying to focus on the rest of the season and make assessments after that,” Jackson reiterated Tuesday when asked again about his pro prospects.

Jackson comes across as abnormally even-keeled. He is intent on remaining humble, passing on the opportunity Tuesday to proclaim himself the top cornerback in college football.

“I don’t really want to make predictions,” Jackson said when asked if he considers himself the best. “That’s for people to talk about, what they want to decide.”

He did say he’s been hearing from many people back home in Texas and new friends here in Iowa. He’s had to limit contact.

“I just put my phone down a lot more and just focus on football, because that’s really what’s most important for me right now, just trying to finish out the season and not really be distracted by people,” Jackson said.

That’s great news for a Hawkeye secondary that has been leaning on Jackson all season. He entered the fall as a relative unknown, with one career start under his belt. He’s been nothing short of brilliant in anchoring a back end of Iowa’s defense that has been in flux throughout a 6-4 campaign (3-4 Big Ten Conference).

Only Jackson has started every game.

Junior safety Brandon Snyder tore an ACL in the spring, returned to make one start against Illinois, and reinjured the knee in the process.

Senior safety Miles Taylor lost his starting job for three weeks but regained it Saturday after Amani Hooker suffered a bruise in the Ohio State game. Hooker is likely out again for this Saturday’s home finale against Purdue, Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. He hasn’t been able to practice yet this week.

Free safety Jake Gervase started the first three games, was benched for Hooker, and has started the past four.

Opposite Jackson at cornerback, Manny Rugamba has started seven games and Michael Ojemudia three. Rugamba was injured against Wisconsin, and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to get on the field Saturday. If not, it will be Ojemudia.

Where would the Hawkeyes be without Jackson? They may have to find out next season. For now, Ferentz is glad to have the ball-hawking junior against a Purdue team that just torched Northwestern for 398 passing yards behind sophomore quarterback Elijah Sindelar.

Purdue (4-6, 2-5) is in its first season under coach Jeff Brohm, who is known as an offensive mastermind.

“They throw it all over the place,” Ferentz said of the Boilermakers. “They do a lot of things that are tough to prepare for because they're very, very diverse. Not afraid to pull something out of their hat, too, at any time, so you've just got to be on edge at all times.”

That’s where Jackson comes in. He has been forced to become a leader in his first year as a starter, a role he embraces.

His teammates have noticed.

“You can trust the man to be in a certain spot,” senior linebacker Bo Bower said of Jackson.

That comes from obsessive film study, Jackson said. He spent three years preparing for these moments, driven by the notion that he didn’t want to let his teammates down when it was his time to perform.

Now, Jackson wants opposing quarterbacks to throw in his direction, which for some reason they still do.

“We’re going to have to be really disciplined in the back end,” Jackson said. “It doesn’t really matter if they come at me or anybody else. Regardless, we’re going to have to play on our toes and play at our best because that’s what we’re required to do.”