Experts see bright NFL future for Josh Jackson, whose departure leaves huge void for Iowa Hawkeyes

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

Josh Jackson is about to become a film star.

That’s the next step for the all-American cornerback after he announced Wednesday he will skip his senior season at Iowa in order to enter the NFL Draft. Now, 32 teams will start poring over the video evidence of one of the most remarkable seasons in Hawkeye football history.

“His tape is going to speak for itself, especially in high-profile games,” former Iowa and NFL defensive back Matt Bowen said of Jackson.

Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson celebrates after a 2016 home upset of Michigan. His 2017 was even better -- eight interceptions, unanimous all-American honors and now a trip to the NFL Draft, where he may be a first-round selection in April.

Those games include a three-interception masterpiece against Ohio State. A pair of pick-sixes at Wisconsin. Even an interception against Boston College in last week’s Pinstripe Bowl, which turned out to be Jackson’s Iowa swan song.

What NFL teams will be impressed by are “the ball skills,” said Bowen, who is now an NFL writer for ESPN and a high school football coach back home in Illinois.

“It’s one thing to be in position as a defensive back. It’s another thing to make plays. … If I’m a defensive backs coach in the NFL, I want tough, physical players. I want guys that tackle, guys that are aggressive with their hands, guys that will challenge wide receivers.”

Jackson did all of those things during his lone season as a Hawkeye starter. He tied a program record with eight interceptions. He broke up another 18 passes. He was in on 48 tackles.

And now he’s off to the NFL, where Gil Brandt is among those who see him as a late first-round or early second-round pick in April. Brandt, who was in charge of player personnel for the Dallas Cowboys from 1960-89 and now writes about the draft for, was impressed by what he saw from Jackson.

“I just like the fact that he’s such a good athlete. He was a triple-jumper in high school. He has played both wide receiver and defensive back,” Brandt said. “I do think he has innate ability to play the position.”

At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, Jackson has the size NFL teams desire at cornerback. But Brandt said scouts will be intensely interested in his times in certain drills at the combine in two months. Ideally, Jackson would run a 40-yard dash in the 4.5- to 4.55-second range, Brandt said. If it’s slightly slower, he’ll need to show terrific change-of-direction quickness in the shuttle and three-cone drills.

It also helps Jackson that he’s entering a draft short on highly regarded cornerbacks, Brandt said, a stark contrast to 2017, when former Hawkeye Desmond King fell all the way to the fifth round before the Los Angeles Chargers selected him.

King, who stands only 5-10 and lacks blazing speed, ended up having a terrific rookie season. And that should help Jackson, Bowen said, as the Hawkeyes’ reputation for developing NFL-ready defensive backs is growing.

“I think that was a huge oversight by the NFL, and you saw what (King) did. He was so physical and so versatile in the slot,” Bowen said.

“That goes so much farther than talent in the NFL. Everyone has talent. The guys that are talented and mature and tough, those are the guys that play seven, eight, nine years. They’re willing to sacrifice on special teams. They’re willing to take coaching.”

Bowen played seven years in the NFL at strong safety. He’s a big believer in Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s ability to develop talented players in the secondary.

Parker’s first season at Iowa, in 1999, was as a defensive backs coach. That was Bowen’s senior year, and he noticed Parker’s impact the first time he took the field with his new position coach.

“That workout was hard as heck, and it was all technique-based — your pedal, your stance, eyes, footwork, angle to the ball,” Bowen said. “That’s still Iowa football. That’s why they compete. It’s why they win.”

That’s why Bowen is confident the Hawkeyes will find an effective replacement for Jackson. His departure was expected, but it does leave a big void for a 2018 defense that also must replace all three starting linebackers.

2018 PROJECTIONS: An early look at Iowa's possible depth chart for next fall

Freshman Matt Hankins was starting opposite Jackson by the end of 2017, a position he earned with strong play but also because sophomores Manny Rugamba and Michael Ojemudia didn’t pan out.

Rugamba entered 2017 as the Hawkeyes’ most experienced cornerback after a true freshman season in which he had 19 tackles, two interceptions and four pass breakups. But he never found his footing, starting with an opening-game suspension for an offseason violation of team rules.

Bowen is still high on Rugamba, who figures to get the first shot to join Hankins as starters next season. At 6-foot, 185 pounds, Rugamba showed a willingness to be physical as a rookie and did have 31 tackles as a sophomore before losing his job to Hankins.

Beyond Hankins, Ojemudia and Rugamba, the Hawkeyes have had strong recruiting classes at cornerback the past two years. Trey Creamer, Camron Harrell and Josh Turner redshirted last season and will be looking for playing time. D.J. Johnson and Terry Roberts are arriving on campus this summer.

Parker will be waiting for them, Bowen said, ready to indoctrinate them into a system the Hawkeyes have had in place for decades. Bowen called Parker one of the five best defensive backs coaches in the country.

“You have to learn to tackle first. If you can’t tackle, you can’t play,” Bowen said. “The second thing is physicality and toughness, the way you challenge routes.

“I’m pretty confident that (Parker) will develop the next guy in line to take that spot to be very productive and very tough.”