IOWA CITY, Iowa — Josh Jackson sits on a plane this day, traveling from the Eastern Iowa Airport to Atlanta on a flight nobody but himself envisioned.
The junior Iowa cornerback was fourth on the depth chart last year behind two seniors with 80-plus starts and a freshman who passed him up. Injuries forced Jackson into action late in the season, including a start in the Outback Bowl.
He entered the spring as a starter, but with his name more or less written on a dry erase board. Now, less than a year from his first start, Jackson is one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. Thursday night in Atlanta, he finds out if he’s the winner.
“Looking back on it, I’m just really happy the way things turned out,” Jackson said. “I’m glad the way things went. It’s really cool just to reflect and see those things I did and just really all the hard work paid off. That’s what I’m most happy about. I just want to keep pushing and getting better.”
How did Jackson become one of the nation’s best defensive backs? In the offseason he became more consistent with his approach and more diligent with his routines. He maintained his natural humility but matured as a player. He reshaped his natural skills and enhanced his attributes.
More than anything, it was a testament to his character and perseverance.
A talented athlete
Jackson grew in Corinth, Texas, and attended Lake Dallas High School in southeast Denton. Jackson was one of many athletes in his family and excelled in multiple sports. He played both receiver and defensive back, catching 24 passes for 485 yards and 9 touchdowns as a senior. He also qualified for the state track meet in the triple jump as a junior.
“When he first got here, he was a short kid so he really exploded while he was here,” Lake Dallas football coach Michael Young said. “He was probably as good of a receiver [as he was] a defensive back when he was in high school. I would talk to some of the Iowa coaches when they were recruiting him and I told them I wouldn’t be surprised if he was playing wide receiver for you before he’s gone because he’s got such good ball skills.”
Jackson was overlooked in the recruit-rich state and received only a 2-star rating. He committed to the Hawkeyes over Nevada, Colorado State and New Mexico State, according to Rivals. Jackson signed as a cornerback but he also was considered at wide receiver.
After redshirting in 2014, Jackson saw action in every 2015 game on special teams and also played on Iowa’s defensive sub-packages. In 2016, Jackson played in 12 games but had slipped to the fourth cornerback position. He started the Outback Bowl against Florida and he took on a new mindset entering the 2017 offseason.
“Things started clicking for me after the Florida game,” Jackson said. “I went to work and I just wanted to make sure I was ready for the season, make sure that I had everything in order in my mind and grind and try to accomplish the goals that I’ve set.”
Jackson, who stands 6 feet, 1 inch and weighs 192 pounds, became almost a de facto starter when Desmond King and Greg Mabin landed in the NFL. But Jackson solidified his position because of his hard work in the spring.
“I thought he was a guy that really had a chance to have a good season,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “He had had an unbelievable out of season this summer and played well in the spring, played well last year, the last couple years. You’ve just seen him grow with his role, but you never know where it’s going to go and how well a guy will play.”
“He’s a big, long kid,” Young said. “Athletic, and has great ball skills. His thing of size and speed and ball skills, that’s really what separates him. His ball skills are really good. To be able to turn direction, find ball back over his head the other way, he’s a natural.”
Josh Jackson takes a leap
Jackson opened the season against Wyoming, which featured top NFL quarterback prospect Josh Allen. With 10 NFL scouts in Kinnick Stadium that day, Jackson notched 5 tackles and a pass breakup, and intercepted a pass and returned it 41 yards. It was a solid performance that turned heads.
Against North Texas two weeks later, Jackson added another interception and blocked a field goal. At Northwestern, he broke up 3 passes. He had 4 more against Minnesota, including one that ricocheted to safety Jake Gervase for an interception. Then came the game that introduced the world to Josh Jackson.
With perennial Big Ten power Ohio State in town for the first time in seven years, Iowa put together a classic Ferentz performance. The Hawkeyes intercepted Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett 4 times in a 55-24 win. Jackson had 3 picks all by himself. One was a throw into triple coverage. Another came when Jackson ripped the ball away from a receiver in the middle of the field. Jackson’s third pick became a viral video nationally.
— NFL on ESPN (@ESPNNFL) November 7, 2017
Barrett tossed a go route toward Binjimen Victor down the right sideline. Jackson timed his leap perfectly, grabbed the ball with his right hand and pulled down the interception. It was shown everywhere, including Monday Night Football featuring likely Pro Football Hall of Fame receiver Randy Moss.
“Man, a play like, you’ve got to give credit when it’s due,” Moss said on his You Got Mossed segment. “Josh Jackson, way to go.”
As much as Ferentz liked the one-handed grab, he clung to Jackson’s second interception as his favorite.
“That last one was kind of a B.J. Lowery moment, right, very, very similar,” said Ferentz, referencing Lowery’s similar one-handed interception in 2013. “But the one in the middle where he fought for that ball and took it out. You know, probably represented the kind of effort we’re going to need to win this game. We knew we had to compete, and it was a great effort by him.”
The three interceptions in one game tied a school record. Jackson was named the Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week and the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week, and ESPN named his one-handed interception the top play of the day.
If it’s possible for Jackson to have an encore greater than his Ohio State performance, he did so at Wisconsin. On the Badgers’ first series, Jackson read the route, intercepted quarterback Alex Hornibrook and returned it 43 yards for a score. In the second half, Jackson intercepted another Hornibrook pass and brought it back 52 yards for a score. He also forced a fumble that was recovered by a teammate.
“Josh is a great player,” Gervase said. “He works hard every day. He’s kind of a freak athletically. He can cover anybody. He’s a huge asset on our defense and anytime we can create turnovers and make plays it always seems like he’s involved in some way or another.”
In Cornith, people were excited for Jackson.
“We keep up with him a lot,” Young said. “He still comes around when he’s in town. I know everybody in town is excited about him. They watched the games that have been on. I got to watch a little bit of the Ohio State game and a little of the Wisconsin game. I know everybody in town was watching and saw it.”
In Iowa’s final two regular-season games, defensive coordinator Phil Parker moved Jackson from one side to the other based on matchup. That’s something the defense has never done, even with 2015 Thorpe Award winner Desmond King or Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year Micah Hyde in 2012.
Now and the future
During the season, Jackson ignored most of the accolades. But he’s more appreciative now that only the Pinstripe Bowl remains.
Jackson joined King and Hyde as the Big Ten’s top defensive back and is likely to earn consensus All-American honors. He’s tied for first nationally with 7 interceptions and his 25 passes defended are the second-most recorded in the last 10 seasons. At Iowa, Jackson is one of the most decorated defensive backs in school history. He’s 1 interception shy of tying the Iowa single-season record, set by Nile Kinnick in 1939 and tied by Lou King in 1981 and Desmond King in 2015. Jackson’s 2 touchdown returns in one game tied Lowery’s record.
It’s possible — maybe even likely — Jackson declares for the NFL draft after the season. He graduates in May and most NFL draft analysts rate him as a likely first-rounder. Jackson has eschewed such talk, but he acknowledges he will have those conversations with his family after the season.
As for now, winning the Thorpe Award was a goal he planned before the season. It was something he envisioned back in January and February. It all could become reality Thursday night.
“I’m just happy I was able to have the opportunity to come out and play ball, [make] those plays and just put myself in position to be, I guess, acclaimed to be one of the best defensive backs in the country,” Jackson said. “I think it’s truly a cool deal.”