By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Maybe we should have seen Josh Jackson’s sudden rise to stardom coming based just on recent history alone.
The Corinth, Texas native has a chance on Thursday to be the second defensive back from Iowa to win the Jim Thorpe Award in the past three years and is already the 10th Hawkeye defensive back, including the eighth cornerback, to make first-team All-Big Ten since 2009.
His performance this season would be impressive under any circumstance. But the fact that Jackson had only started one game before this season makes it incredible, and is more proof that Iowa has a knack for developing star defensive backs.
Iowa has produced more first-team all-conference defensive backs since 2009 than any other position on the team. The offensive line has produced the second most with seven.
So if you want to label the University of Iowa, perhaps it’s best to call it a defensive back school because the individual honors certainly support that argument.
Iowa has had at least one defensive back make first-team All-Big Ten in 12 of Kirk Ferentz’s 19 seasons as head coach.
And almost all of them were unheralded recruits, including Jackson, who came to Iowa as a two-star recruit.
Bob Sanders was the first Iowa defensive back to make first-team All-Big Ten under Ferentz in 2001.
A native of Erie, Pa., Sanders would go on to make first-team all-conference three times as a hard-hitting strong safety and is credited with changing the culture under Ferentz perhaps more than any other player.
Fellow Erie native Jovon Johnson also made first-team All-Big Ten as an undersized cornerback in 2005.
What these defensive backs all have in common besides their individual success is that Phil Parker coached them at Iowa.
Parker has coached the Iowa defensive backs since 1999 and has had a dual role as the defensive coordinator since 2012.
“That just shows you that Iowa doesn't care about your height or your ranking,” said 2018 Iowa defensive back commit Terry Roberts, who also is from Erie, Pa. “They want kids who can play.
“Coach Phil Parker does an amazing job with the (defensive backs) at Iowa and I can't wait to get there with him.”
With just two reported scholarship offers from Iowa and Duquense, the 5-foot-10, 170-pound Roberts fits the mold as an Iowa defensive back recruit. Parker apparently sees something in Roberts that coaches from other Power 5 schools don’t see.
The circumstances were the same when Jovon Johnson signed with Iowa in 2002.
Roberts uses Johnson and former Kansas State running back Darren Sproles as inspiration because they both achieved stardom in college despite being undersized and mostly overlooked as recruits.
“It is my motivation each and every day,” Roberts said. “When I first saw Darren Sproles and Jovon Johnson make it, I knew that size didn't matter, so that's my motto when I'm on the field.”
Ankeny Centennial senior Riley Moss announced recently that he has accepted Iowa’s offer to be a gray-shirt recruit at defensive back. Moss was all set to attend FCS power North Dakota State, but he couldn’t resist the chance to become a part of Iowa’s rich history at defensive back.
“It's cool,” Moss said of Iowa’s success with defensive backs. “It shows how well they develop their players there. It's another reason why I'm excited to buy into the program and leave my mark there.”
As for Josh Jackson, he is one of three finalists for the Jim Thorpe Award, which is given each year to the nation’s top collegiate defensive back. The winner will be announced on Thursday with former Iowa defensive back Bob Stoops handing out the award.
A strong case could be made for the 6-foot-1, 192-pound Jackson to win the Jim Thorpe Award. He led the nation with 25 passes defended during the regular season and was tied for the lead with seven interceptions. And he played his best against the best competition, combining for five interceptions in back-to-back games against Ohio State and Wisconsin, including two picks sixes against the Badgers.
Jackson still has one season of eligibility remaining, but his name is starting to appear on NFL mock drafts as a possible first-round pick. So there is a growing belief that Jackson will make his final appearance as a Hawkeye against Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl on Dec. 27 at Yankee Stadium in New York City.
His departure would certainly leave a void, but history shows that Iowa has a knack for reloading rather than rebuilding at defensive back.
Iowa's first team All-Big Ten defensive backs since 2009
2017: Josh Jackson, cornerback
2016: Desmond King, cornerback
2015: Desmond King, cornerback
2013: B.J. Lowery, cornerback
2012: Micah Hyde, cornerback
2011: Shaun Prater, cornerback
2010: Tyler Sash, strong safety; Shaun Prater, cornerback
2009: Tyler Sash, strong safety; Amari Spievey, cornerback