Who will replace Josh Jackson? Michael Ojemudia is up for the challenge

Matthew Bain
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Desmond King's old Iowa playbook sits on Michael Ojemudia’s nightstand back home.

Michigan State's Felton Davis III catches a pass against Iowa's Michael Ojemudia during the first quarter on Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, at Spartan Stadium in East Lansing.

King gave the collection of plays to Ojemudia three summers ago, when he was a wide-eyed high school kid just starting his first summer with Iowa.

The book helped Ojemudia quickly acclimate to the Hawkeyes' scheme. And, maybe more importantly, the gesture helped him feel at home in Iowa City. He said he still leafs through the playbook's worn pages, even though Iowa has switched to an online playbook.

"That was really big," Ojemudia remembered Tuesday. 

This year, it’s Ojemudia’s turn to welcome the incoming defensive backs.

And there are plenty.

Dallas Craddieth, Julius Brents, D.J. Johnson, Kaevon Merriweather, Terry Roberts and preferred walk-on Jaden Snyder will join the team as it begins its summer session this week.

They form Iowa's most talented position group of the 2018 class. Craddieth and Johnson were four-star prospects. Brents was invited to play with Team USA’s U19 squad this spring. Roberts was prolific on both sides of the ball in high school. And there’s thought that Merriweather could wind up becoming the steal of the class.

All five can play cornerback. Craddieth, Brents and Merriweather also project at safety.

They bring immediate competition to a secondary that has no locked-in-stone starters — especially the cornerback position, which is wide open without Josh Jackson.

Ojemudia, who will contend for a starting cornerback spot, embraces the competition.

"I know that it’s a talented class — that we could actually use a lot of them this year," he said. "(It’s about) just learning and growing really quickly. With talent, you also have to pay attention a lot. I just want to see a lot of growth out of (the freshmen) so they can contribute as fast as possible.

"(They’ll bring) better competition during practice, motivating each other. It’s a group effort just to be a good defensive back. Bringing in more juice, more hype in the locker room and on the field — it helps, as a whole."

Michael Ojemudia runs kids through a drill during a Hawkeyes Youth Camp at Johnston Middle School Saturday, May 5, 2018.

Of cornerbacks returning from last year, the three logical favorites to start would be Manny Rugamba, Matt Hankins and Ojemudia, with Rugamba at the top of that list.

Ojemudia played an up-and-down sophomore season. He started three games (vs. Wyoming, at Michigan State, vs. Illinois) and saw action in all 13, amassing 29 tackles and one pass break-up. Against the Spartans, he recorded a career-high eight tackles.

But that game also came with harsh growing pains.

Remember Felton Davis III? The receiver who hauled in nine catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns in Michigan State’s 17-10 win?

Most of that damage came against Ojemudia, Davis' primary defender in a disastrous first quarter.

Sept. 30: Michigan State's Felton Davis III catches a 6-yard touchdown pass against Iowa's Michael Ojemudia during the first quarter. It was Davis' second score of the game.

Sometimes, for a defensive back, the only way to learn is being thrown into the fire.

Well ... that was the case here. 

"I learned a lot (from the Michigan State) game because it was a slow start," said Ojemudia, who recorded 12 tackles in the final eight games after the Michigan State loss. "A couple plays in the first quarter almost determined the game, so that’s why I was hard on myself. That’s why you’ve just got to come out of the gate and be confident. Every play counts, you have to give your all every play.

"As a defensive back, you have a short memory. Everything that happens, you learn from it, but you have to move on with 100 percent confidence. That’s how you make plays on the field."

Jackson, now a member of the Green Bay Packers, was in a similar position to Ojemudia at this time last year. He entered his junior season with plenty of snaps but little starting experience. (Actually, none in Jackson's case.) He was all potential waiting to be proven.

Ojemudia took notes on his teammate last year. He learned how to prepare from Jackson, he said. Truly prepare — like every game is the most important of your life.

At least on paper, there's certainly a size similarity. Ojemudia is listed at 6-foot-1, 199 pounds right now. Jackson entered last season at 6-1, 192.

"We were in the same position a year ago," Ojemudia said of Jackson. "I’m excited for what this season can bring. ... His story of working really hard, I feel like it can work for anybody in this program — especially me.

"I’m just trying to be the best player I can be this summer — that starts in the offseason. Trying to get my body right, my mind right — as good as possible so I’ll be the best player I can this season."

And, if he needs it, King's old playbook will be waiting on his nightstand back home.

Matthew Bain covers college football and basketball recruiting for the Des Moines Register. He also helps out with Iowa and Iowa State football and basketball coverage for HawkCentral and Cyclone Insider. Contact him at mbain@dmreg.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewBain_.