IOWA CITY — The biggest question surrounding Iowa cornerback Josh Jackson entering 2017 was whether he could live up to the lofty standards set by his predecessors.
The biggest question now is whether Jackson will leave for the NFL after the season.
Jackson, a 6-foot-1, 192-pound junior from Corinth, Texas, sidestepped questions about his future Tuesday, preferring to focus instead on a season that continues Saturday when the Hawkeyes (6-4, 3-4 Big Ten) host Purdue (4-6, 2-5) in their home finale.
Jackson’s performance this season — a nation-leading seven interceptions, 163 interception return yards and 23 passes defended — has changed the trajectory of his young career. Jackson has picked off five passes in his past two games, earning back-to-back defensive player of the week honors from the Big Ten.
“He’s one of those guys that can just do it,” Iowa linebacker Bo Bower said of his teammate. “He’s extremely gifted and talented — and then he works his butt off. And obviously, over time, that’s going to accumulate, and eventually it’s just going to click. And it just clicked.”
Jackson didn’t become a starter until this season because the Hawkeyes had two standouts at cornerback in Desmond King and Greg Mabin. King won the Thorpe Award in 2015 as the nation’s best defensive back — and Jackson might do so as well after this season.
Jackson redshirted in 2014 and played sparingly as a freshman a year later following a brief stint at wide receiver. He saw further action in 2016, but his path to the starting lineup was blocked by the presence of King and Mabin. Rather than be frustrated by a lack of playing time, Jackson said he watched how hard King and Mabin worked — and how much they studied film — and tried to emulate them once he entered the starting lineup.
“I really wanted to be a leader on this team, and just be accountable,” Jackson said. “I just try to come to work with the mindset to get better.”
It was clear from the opener that the Hawkeyes had found a good one in Jackson. He was brilliant in a 24-3 win over NFL prospect Josh Allen and Wyoming on Sept. 2, spearheading a stellar defensive effort with an interception.
Jackson consistently improved as the weeks wore on, but in the past two weeks he established himself as arguably the best cornerback in America.
Jackson had three interceptions against Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett — who entered the game with 22 TD passes since his last interception — to cement a 55-21 rout of the Buckeyes, their worst defeat under Coach Urban Meyer.
Jackson was the only bright spot in last week’s 38-14 loss to No. 5 Wisconsin, returning both of his interceptions for touchdowns. He’s now one interception shy of tying the school record of eight held by King and Nile Kinnick.
“He works really hard off the field. He’s a big film guy,” running back Akrum Wadley said. “If you combine that with his athleticism and his talent, he’s a different type of dude out there. It’s definitely paying off for him, and the sky’s the limit for Josh Jackson. He’s an animal.”