Once the jewel of Iowa's 2019 recruiting class, Jestin Jacobs ready for breakout season

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Iowa fans remember linebacker Jestin Jacobs from his recruitment in 2019. Then, the four-star Army All-American spurned in-state power Ohio State in favor of the Hawkeyes. 

Since then, he's grown in more ways than one. He's physically bigger, but he's grown from a fan favorite to a team favorite among coaches and players. This year, the redshirt sophomore is set to break out on the field with big expectations. He's one of the three starting linebackers alongside Seth Benson and Jack Campbell, and he's working at the linebacker/safety hybrid "cash" position with Dane Belton. 

Wherever he lines up this fall, he'll be a welcomed weapon in Phil Parker's defense

"He’s got great football instinct, great eyes and great feet," veteran defensive back Riley Moss said. "He’s just a big dude. His arms are long. He takes up a lot of space, which helps us out in the back end, if they’re running crossers and meshes; he can sit underneath those. It helps out he’s got that natural IQ, kind of a football baller."

Jestin Jacobs (5) made a name for himself early on as a top-rated recruit who chose Iowa over Ohio State. Now, he figures to be a major part of the 2021 Iowa defense.

Jacobs entered Iowa a highly touted prospect but knew that immediate playing time wasn't likely. To start, he enrolled weighing only 193 pounds. Not physically ready, he redshirted 2019 and did not see any game action. 

"There's not many 190-pound linebackers in the Big Ten," Jacobs said. "I knew that it was a process. I came in and instantly got humbled just by the information that the upperclassmen knew. Guys like Kristian Welch and Nick Niemann knew the game on a level I didn't know was possible, so I knew I had a long way to go before I could see the field." 

More on defense:As game week arrives, Hawkeyes ready to lean on Phil Parker's defensive plan

While he learned the game behind Niemann and Welch, Jacobs utilized Iowa's strength and conditioning program to transform his body. Today, Jacobs sits between 238-240 pounds and is still the explosive athlete he was in high school. According to linebacker coach Seth Wallace, he can broad jump 11 feet. 

"I feel like I bring a certain level of athleticism sideline to sideline," Jacobs said. "I feel like I have a lot of speed to put on the field and using athleticism to my advantage to get to the ball." 

After playing sparingly in 2020, Jacobs' first opportunity to put this athleticism on display is Saturday's season opener against Indiana. His presence will be counted on to help stop Indiana's spread offense attack, particularly in the short-passing game that's designed to get skill players out in space. 

However, what Jacobs brings to the linebacker room goes beyond just one game's impact. His athleticism allows Parker and Wallace to add a level of creativity on defense that hasn't been there before. Since 2017, the focus in Iowa's linebacker room has been about creating position versatility. 

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Jacobs isn't just a utility player at the cash. Wallace can see him at any linebacker position full-time if need be. 

"There are some things Jestin can do from a coverage standpoint that we haven't had at (linebacker) in years past," Wallace said. "Things we've normally turned over completely to our cash player. I think it's opening doors for us defensively.

"You're going to see Jestin Jacobs at the Mike (middle), Will (weak side) and Leo (strong side) positions." 

Jacobs' high praise is also echoed by head coach Kirk Ferentz, who sees a similar player arc between Jacobs and Niemann, the 2021 sixth-round pick who made the Los Angles Chargers' 53-man roster this week. 

"Niemann is a really good football player," Ferentz said. "He was climbing the ladder, similar to Jestin. But that's how teams continue to be good. You have to have people coming up the ladder. And Jestin's always been a very talented guy. We knew that when we recruited him. He's just playing more comfortably now. And a guy who knows what he's doing." 

More:Inside Charlie Jones' winding journey to become a starting receiver at Iowa

From the skinny freshman to the filled-out product he is now, Jacobs thinks he's ready to take the next step as a player — and take on the lofty external expectations those around college football have for Hawkeye linebackers. 

The topic of discussion in the linebacker room isn't of the pressure of those expectations, but of upholding the standard. Part of that standard is maximum effort, which Jacobs hopes to display on Saturday. 

"It's all just a game," Jacobs said. "I've been playing my whole life so just using that to calm myself down and holding myself accountable to me and my teammates." 

Kennington Smith is the new Iowa Hawkeyes beat writer for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at ksmith@gannett.com