Alaric Jackson didn't start playing until 3 years ago. He's already turning heads at Iowa.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — Challenge: Look around the country and find a starting offensive line more set in stone than Iowa’s.
Chances are, you can't. That’s what happens when all five guys return from a unit named the country’s best last season.
But there's still plenty of 2017 intrigue for the Hawkeyes’ strongest position — among the backups. Who will set themselves up for starting roles next year when Boone Myers, Ike Boettger and Sean Welsh graduate from Iowa football?
There's plenty of candidates in a program that regularly develops NFL-bound linemen. One name, however, has hovered in contention and stuck on coaches’ tongues all offseason: redshirt freshman Alaric Jackson, a left tackle who saw plenty of first-team reps at Iowa’s Kids Day open practice.
"It’s not like we’ve said, 'OK, here’s how we’re going into the Wyoming game,'" offensive line coach Tim Polasek told HawkCentral. " … But I think (Jackson) has worked himself into that conversation of the top-seven guys.
"Now, it’s his time. It’s his time, because the kid cares — the kid really cares."
It was a significant get when Jackson committed to Iowa in 2016. He was a consensus three-star recruit, but that’s only because he began playing football his junior year at Renaissance High in Detroit. He was a 6-foot-7, 285-pound bundle of potential with a ceiling that could land him in the NFL. He picked Iowa over 18 other offers, including almost all the Big Ten Conference.
He was an obvious redshirt candidate.
"I was pretty raw," Jackson said through a smile at Iowa’s media day.
One year later, Jackson is raw no more … or, at least much less so. He said he focused a lot on observation during his redshirt season — on studying everything the elder statesmen of his position did. Their plays and schemes. Their hand positions during pass protection. Their footwork against outside rushes. How they practiced. How they prepared. How they watched film.
Jackson said those older guys — he mentions Myers and Boettger, in particular — helped morph him from a prospect to a legitimate Big Ten player.
"The guys say I’m doing pretty well," said Jackson, quick to credit peers and coaches for his growth.
Most of Jackson’s lingering weaknesses stem from a lack of experience, Polasek said. That makes sense for a guy entering his fourth year of organized football.
But the Iowa coach also said Jackson is "extremely intelligent" and that he understands mistakes he makes because he’s "detail-oriented."
"He's really aware that (his problem might be) his hands in pass protection. Then, maybe two days later, it’ll be his near foot in pass protection, or whatever it is," Polasek said. "I just think he needs to continue to keep coming out. And maybe before long, it can go one of two ways: He can settle into one of those backup roles where it is what it is and he’s in the rotation, or maybe he challenges a little bit and makes us really have to earn our money.
"He’s on the right track, I can tell you that. We’ve got a good prospect there and we’ve got a kid that is currently challenging for playing time. And he’s eager. He’s hungry. He’s only a redshirt freshman, but I think he's closer to being a mid-year sophomore."
Fast-forward two years, and the 285-pound athlete from Detroit has matured into a 312-pound frame. Polasek said Jackson, who's listed at 320 pounds on Iowa's roster, has done a great job shaping his body this offseason and that 308-310 pounds would be an ideal range.
Veterans on the team notice Jackson's development, too. Defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, poised for a big year of his own in the trenches, only faces Jackson when the offensive line double-teams Lattimore during practice.
He had two words to describe that matchup:
Matthew Bain covers preps, recruiting and the Hawkeyes for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, The Des Moines Register and HawkCentral. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewBain_.