The path Iowa's Josh Jackson took in becoming one of nation's top cornerbacks

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Josh Jackson remembers it was a sunny day. He was 10 or maybe 11.

It was his turn to pitch as his youth league team’s baseball season in suburban Dallas was winding down.

He also remembers what his mother told him before that game. It would change the course of his athletic future.

“While you’re up there, the mound is yours.”

He heeded that wisdom, and after walking the first batter, he was soon recording out after out. A buzz began to build around the ballpark, as people gathered to see that Josh was still pitching — and that the other team still had no hits with an inning to go.

“He just stood in there. All eyes on him,” Vanessa Jackson says. “And just pitched his little heart out.”

Three outs later, the no-hitter was complete.

Iowa's Josh Jackson, front, celebrates after his pass deflection resulted in an interception for teammate Jake Gervase (30) against Minnesota.

To a mother who had watched the third of her five children play multiple sports on teams that would win one or two games in a season, the day exemplified not only the talent Josh had inside him, but the fight.

A decade later, that combination has helped him become one of college football’s most rapidly rising defensive stars.

The Iowa cornerback has rocketed into the national spotlight, with his three interceptions in Saturday’s 55-24 rout of Ohio State the signature performance of a fantastic junior season.

His leaping, one-handed interception of J.T. Barrett drew comparisons to NFL receiving star Odell Beckham Jr. and was ESPN’s play of the day. Big Ten Network brought him on air Monday for a six-minute interview. Multiple outlets made him national defensive player of the week. The Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the nation’s top defensive player, lists Jackson as one of its 18 semifinalists. NFL draftniks are mentioning him as a possible first-rounder, if he leaves school early.

A barely-used backup one year ago has seen his profile explode.

It seems like this has come out of nowhere. Until you dig into his story.

Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson intercepts an Ohio State pass in the fourth quarter at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017, in Iowa City.

A recruiting steal

As many Hawkeye success stories begin, Jackson was a lightly recruited football prospect.

The more you learn about him, you start to wonder: How did so many big programs miss?

“I thought I could play at big schools,” he says. “I thought I had the talent.”

Almost every Power Five presence — places such as Baylor, Oklahoma, TCU, Texas and Texas A&M — that passed through the hallways of Lake Dallas High School passed on Jackson.

One didn’t.

Stemming from his days at Texas, then-Hawkeye assistant Bobby Kennedy had a good relationship with Michael Young, Jackson’s coach at Lake Dallas. Kennedy saw Jackson as a late bloomer, a hidden talent who had sprouted to 6-foot-1 and could catch anything thrown his way.

Look familiar? Josh Jackson (3) goes up for a catch during his high school playing days.

And, oh, could he jump.

As a high school senior, Jackson won his regional track meet with a high jump of 6-9. He would place second in the state. In practice, he says, he once cleared 7 feet.

“I just kind of went out there and played around with it,” Jackson says now. “I didn’t have an actual coach to teach me.”

If you’re not familiar with high school track and field, such high-jump skills are elite. Clearing 7 feet in Iowa would tie the Class 4-A state-meet record.

“He’s always been able to jump,” Young says. “I always thought when he went (to Iowa), he would end up being a receiver. Because he’s got such good ball skills.”

Iowa wound up being Jackson’s lone Power Five offer. Most of his recruiting interest was from Division II schools. rated him as a two-star prospect. In just five games as a high school senior, he had 24 catches for 485 yards with nine touchdowns before a broken ankle ended his season. Then the recruiting calls stopped.

Except from Iowa.

When he visited Iowa City, it reminded him of his native Corinth — a bedroom community 35 miles outside Dallas with a population of about 20,000.

“Small, easy to get around,” he says of Iowa City. “Kind of reminded me of home.”

The Hawkeyes stuck with him; he would stick with them.

Finding his place

A high school football star can get humbled quickly at the high Division I level, where teams have 85 scholarship players.

“Of course he was frustrated,” Vanessa says. “He came from school here, where he was the man on campus. He literally confessed to me, ‘Mom, once you get here, everybody is so good.’”

Early on, coaches waffled about where to use Jackson.

They started him at cornerback, then moved him to receiver after his 2014 redshirt season. After he dropped a long pass in the spring game, Jackson returned to defense for good.

It was difficult for him to find footing.

But he had talent, and Iowa recognized that. Young recalls Kennedy (who is no longer on Iowa's staff) later returning to Lake Dallas and telling him that Jackson could one day be great.

“I was surprised when he said that,” Young says. “But he really thought he could. That makes sense. That’s what the NFL wants, guys that look like him. Long guys with the ball skills that can cover.”

The flashes were evident as a redshirt freshman. Jackson got limited action in all 14 games, contributing in Iowa’s “Raider” package on third-and-long situations. In the second game of his career, he got matched up on 6-5 Allen Lazard, the best receiver in Iowa State history, at Jack Trice Stadium.

Jackson held his own in that moment — an encouragement to head coach Kirk Ferentz.

But Jackson, one of only three Texans on the current Iowa roster, admits now that he would sometimes stay out too late or lose control over his diet. He says a sophomore year living with fellow defensive back Miles Taylor, who was part of Jackson’s recruiting class, helped him change course.

“(Taylor) was a guy that always helped me believe in the process,” Jackson says.

Jackson waited his turn behind three-year starting cornerbacks Desmond King (a two-time all-American) and Greg Mabin. Then-freshman Manny Rugamba also jumped him on the depth chart last year. But when Mabin and Rugamba got hurt late in the season, Jackson was called upon for his first career start in the Outback Bowl against athlete-filled Florida.

“The Outback Bowl was a true turning point, because he started to really focus in on studying the film,” Vanessa says. “He had the physical (part), but (he started) really wrapping his head around how to execute his role the way he needed to.”

Ferentz has marveled about Jackson’s impressive spring and even better summer. He suspected Jackson was ready to break out.

He was right.

“You've just seen him grow with his role,” Ferentz says, “but you never know where it's going to go and how well a guy will play.

“He's really had to work hard, and he has worked hard. And that's really the key. He's had good ability, but now he's really learned how to play a little bit, and that's a good combination.”

NFL buzz, decision

Jackson’s 2017 season started with a bang. He intercepted NFL-hyped Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen in a dominating 24-3 Iowa win.

He’s been consistently dominant for a team that ranks 16th nationally in fewest points allowed and 13th in pass-efficiency defense — despite going against some of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Allen, Penn State’s Trace McSorley and Barrett. Jackson leads the country with 20 passes defended — 15 breakups, five interceptions.

For some reason, teams keep throwing his way.

“When he’s tuned in and ready to go,” free safety Jake Gervase says, “he’s a nightmare matchup for the opposing offense.”

NFL Draft experts have taken notice of Jackson, whose length and 192-pound frame, combined with excellent ball skills, make him a prototypical cornerback prospect. He’s also got track speed — something he showed in running down Minnesota’s Tyler Johnson from across the field in Iowa’s Oct. 28 win — in his bloodlines.

Iowa safety Miles Taylor, front, helped cornerback Josh Jackson (15) learn how to get his life in order to do what it takes to become a big-time player. Both are in their fourth year in the Hawkeye program.

Jackson’s younger sister, Sophia, is on a track scholarship at Drake. And the first cousin of his father, Paul, was world-renowned hurdler Rodney Milburn — an Olympic gold medalist in the 1972 Munich Games who died tragically in a workplace accident in 1997, when Josh was 1½ years old.

Pro Football Focus recently pegged Jackson as the No. 24 overall pick in the 2018 draft. CBS Sports also lists Jackson among players most likely to be taken in the first round.

If he turns pro, that is.

Vanessa says she hasn’t talked to her son about that decision. But she and Paul won’t be coming to town for Senior Day against Purdue. “Next year,” she says, adding: “I don’t want to think about that. Whatever his dreams are, I’ll support him. Absolutely.”

Vanessa wouldn’t be surprised if her son returns to Iowa for one more season, even though he’s on track to graduate in May. She knows Josh is a finisher of what he starts, something he echoed this week when asked about his NFL buzz.

“I’ve heard about it,” Jackson says. “But I’ve still got the rest of the season left. I’ve got to finish those games strong. My teammates need me. I want to finish out the season with my teammates and get as many more wins as we can.”

Proud in Texas

Back in Texas, where Jackson’s ascent began, they’re rooting him on.

His grandma they call “Big Mama” has, Vanessa reports, moved the Iowa Hawkeyes ahead of her beloved Dallas Cowboys as her No. 1 football passion. Virginia Dillard, who will turn 97 next month and remains sharp as a tack, will watch Saturday’s ABC telecast of Iowa at third-ranked Wisconsin to cheer on her grandson.

At his home church the week before the Ohio State game, the congregation prayed for Jackson’s well-being. His high school is tracking Jackson, too.

Josh Jackson is shown in Texas as a young baseball player. He threw a no-hitter when he was in fifth grade.

“Everybody’s really proud of him,” Young says. “We’re kind of a small town. Everybody still remembers him and knows his family really well.”

Each week before a game, Vanessa shares a message with her son. Knowing Iowa would face the vaunted Ohio State offense last week, she knew the challenge that lied ahead.

She encouraged Josh to channel the same drive he had that summer day in Texas long ago, when he dug deep, pitch after pitch, to complete that no-hitter.

“Just work. Every pitch. Just work. One pitch at a time. One down at a time.”

What followed was the performance of Jackson’s football life — perhaps one that has altered it.

“It’s crazy,” Jackson says. “You’ve just got to make the most of your opportunities. Always believe in yourself, believe in God, be the best you can be.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.