Josh Jackson quietly pushes himself into first-round NFL Draft discussion

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Josh Jackson swats away praise like he swats away footballs.

“I really don’t like to talk about myself,” the Iowa cornerback told reporters Tuesday, as understated as usual.

Fortunately, plenty of football observers are happy to talk about Jackson, a junior who has come out of nowhere to put himself into the discussion as the best defensive player in college football and a first-round NFL Draft choice.

Iowa's Josh Jackson celebrates as Jake Gervase picks off a pass in the end zone during the Hawkeyes' game against Minnesota at Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017.

All of this acclaim comes after Jackson played exactly 297 snaps in his first two seasons as a Hawkeye. At one point, his coaches even experimented with him as a wide receiver.

And now?

Jackson is the second-highest ranked cornerback in the nation, according to Pro Football Focus (behind Darius Williams of Alabama-Birmingham). The PFF crew listed Jackson as the 24th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft in its projections released Tuesday. ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. is also high on Jackson.

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“I’ve heard a little bit of talk about it, but I haven’t paid much attention to it,” Jackson said of the NFL speculation. “I’m just trying to finish out the season and stay focused.”

Jackson was added Monday as a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award given to the best defensive player in college football. His teammate, middle linebacker Josey Jewell, is also on that list, but he has been since the beginning of the season.

Jackson, with one career start entering 2017, has been a revelation while leading the nation with 15 pass breakups. Four of those came in Saturday’s 17-10 win over Minnesota, as teams keep testing him and paying the price.

Jackson, a 6-foot-1 native of Corinth, Texas, was targeted 23 times in Iowa’s first two games, wins over Wyoming and Iowa State.

He’s been targeted 41 times in the six games since, allowing only 27 receptions on those 64 pass attempts. In Iowa’s past two games — against Northwestern and Minnesota — quarterbacks took 13 shots at Jackson and completed only two. Six of them were batted away by the lanky 192-pounder.

When are teams going to learn?

“Maybe it’s just in their game plan,” Jackson said of all the attention he keeps getting. “But it’s fine. I’ve still got to keep playing defense. They keep throwing at me, I’ve got to just keep defending.”

Next up for Iowa (5-3, 2-3 Big Ten Conference) is a 2:30 p.m. home game Saturday vs. No. 3 Ohio State (7-1, 5-0). The Buckeyes have gained more than 500 yards in each of their past six games, and quarterback J.T. Barrett has six different receivers who have caught at least 13 passes and scored two touchdowns. They call themselves “Zone 6.”

Bring them on, Jackson said.

“I expect anybody really to come at me. It doesn’t matter,” he said.

Josh Liskiewitz, who is the Big Ten analyst for PFF, is one of many experts who think Jackson is up for the challenge.

“I think he’s aggressive. He’s just not a guy that gives up a lot of separation. He can use his length appropriately and, obviously, that’s a huge thing in the NFL right now,” Liskiewitz said. “When the ball is in the air, he’s quick to diagnose and get a break on it. For whatever reason, teams are not game-planning against him.”

Liskiewitz said Jackson wasn’t on the NFL radar entering the season — there just wasn’t enough film on him, and sophomore Manny Rugamba was thought to be the Hawkeyes’ top cornerback.

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But it’s clear now that Jackson spent his first three seasons at Iowa wisely. His technique, his footwork, his film study are all terrific.

“Iowa’s a good place to go for stuff like that because they’ll work with guys forever rather than just throw them out there. The fact that he played less than 300 snaps is probably actually a good thing,” Liskiewitz said of the lightly recruited Jackson.

“We don’t really care who you are or what you’re supposed to be. It’s what you do on the field. He’s been awesome, and then last weekend was the apex for him.”

Iowa wide receiver Nick Easley likes to tell people that he gets better by practicing against the best cornerback in the Big Ten.

“He’s got all the talent in the world,” Easley said of Jackson. “His reach, his length, his ability to get his hands on a receiver, makes it hard to separate.”

Jackson was told of Easley’s compliment and quickly turned it around, noting how much better he gets by going up against Iowa’s wide receivers daily.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz noted later Tuesday that “Josh has always been a talented guy, but that maturation process players have to go through...

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“He's worked hard in the out-of-season program. He's a couple years into the program now," he said. "I think he knows his position a little bit better — the expectations of what we're looking for — and he's done a great job of playing defensive football for us.”

Jackson also pointed to a strong offseason as the biggest reason for his “overnight” success. He draws on the words of defensive coordinator Phil Parker, a former collegiate defensive back himself, who has churned out a number of pros.

“Coming out with a positive mindset — a mindset of not being complacent but always trying to improve,” Jackson said. “Like coach Parker always says, ‘If you have a mindset that you’re not good enough and play like you haven’t arrived, then you know it’s always an opportunity to get better.’”

So he must be thrilled to lead the nation in pass breakups, right?

“I think it’s a cool achievement, but I’m just mainly trying to do my job. It’s really part of my job to try to knock passes down and get interceptions,” Jackson deflected.

Jackson did admit that he gets a charge out of practice — of getting ready to go head to head with a new set of wide receivers each week.

“I think that’s what really makes football fun — just the preparation part,” he said.

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But what about the NFL? Jackson, who could choose to enter the draft after the season, was asked the question one more time.

“I really haven’t put much thought into it,” he said. “I’ve just really been trying to focus on Ohio State as much as I can and recognizing their formations and things like that.”

You’ll have to take everyone else’s word for it. Jackson has been one of the biggest surprises in college football this year. He’s earned his chance to play in the NFL, whenever he decides to take it.

Just don’t expect him to talk much about it.