IOWA CITY, Iowa — Three times in the last six years, Iowa’s secondary has featured the Big Ten’s best defensive back.
There was cornerback Micah Hyde back in 2012. Yeah, that Micah Hyde, who made the Pro Bowl with the Buffalo Bills. In 2015, Desmond King intercepted 8 passes for 12-win Iowa, earned consensus first-team All-America honors and won the Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
Last season, cornerback Josh Jackson led the nation in interceptions (8) and passes defensed (26) and was a unanimous first team All-American.
It’s almost become a baton from one great cornerback to the next in line. Hyde left after the 2012 season, and King became a starter in 2013. King and Jackson started together in the Outback Bowl after the 2016 season. Now with Jackson a probable first-round pick, who’s next in line?
Jackson was non-committal on singling out any of his former teammates last week at the NFL combine.
“I think all of them have a chance,” Jackson said. “They’re all really good cornerbacks. And hopefully all of them can have great seasons next year. So I’m rooting for all of them, and I think they’re all capable.”
Jackson was Iowa’s third cornerback in 2015, then fell to fourth in 2016 when then-freshman Manny Rugamba beat him out for the nickel position. Then when starter Greg Mabin (who currently plays for the San Francisco 49ers) suffered a broken foot, Rugamba became the starter. Only when Rugamba was injured in the 2016 regular-season finale against Nebraska did Jackson slide into a starting role.
Jackson attacked the offseason and spring drills last year. He was named one starter along with Rugamba. Jackson looked the part and never relinquished his role.
“You’ve just got to get back on the field and just keep working hard and just earn your spot,” Jackson said. “Nothing’s given. You’ve got to be able to earn it.”
Rugamba, now a junior, had the opposite season from Jackson. He was suspended for the opener for a team violation. Rugamba struggled to overcome an early high-ankle sprain and eventually lost his starting position to Matt Hankins, then a freshman. Michael Ojemudia, also a junior, opened three games last season in Rugamba’s place. Those three cornerbacks form the first tier of potential starters.
Also contending for those spots are Josh Turner, Cam Harrell and Trey Creamer, all of whom redshirted last fall. Sophomore Cedric Boswell also could be in the mix.
Each of those players need to feel urgency in spring drills, not only because of their own competition, but for what’s coming this summer. At cornerback alone, Iowa signed top recruits D.J. Johnson, Julius Brents and Terry Roberts. All three will compete for snaps as freshmen.
“For sure,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We recruited a big number last year of defensive backs, and this is another big group. The way the game is changing, the more speed you have the better off you are. That’s always been true, but I think with the more spread teams we see, probably advantageous for us. There’s opportunity for those guys, we’re excited to have them.”
So as spring drills approach in less than two weeks, get ready for an intense competition to replace Jackson at cornerback. Considering Iowa’s most recent three top-shelf cornerbacks all were unheralded recruits — Hyde and Jackson were 3-star prospects, King flipped from a MAC school before Signing Day in 2013 — it’s possible Iowa’s next great one has generated the least discussion thus far. But we’ll all be talking about him soon enough.