By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Contrary to how it might seem, Josh Jackson’s improbable and sudden rise to stardom as an Iowa defensive back didn’t just happen without any explanation.
He didn’t just wake up one day with star qualities and start making plays. And he wasn’t just in the right place at the right time.
Jackson made himself into a star, of course, with help from his coaches and teammates, but also with a work ethic, persistence and maturity that made a strong impression on current Iowa defensive back Matt Hankins.
“He was always working,” Hankins said of Jackson, who now plays for the Green Bay Packers after earning unanimous first-team All-America honors as a junior cornerback last season. “After we had meetings, he would stay in the meeting room like three hours extra by himself just studying film, studying the opponent and stuff.”
Hankins came on strong near the end of last season as a true freshman, starting the final two games at cornerback opposite of Jackson.
Hankins will make his third career start when Iowa faces Northern Illinois on Saturday in the 2018 season opener at Kinnick Stadium.
And he will do so with Jackson’s influence playing a key role in his preparation.
“You’ve got to put in the work,” Hankins said. “You’ve got to stay in the film room, know your keys, your assignments. And if you can do that, anything can happen.”
Jackson’s miraculous ascent from reserve defensive back in 2016 to a first-team All-American last season showed that almost anything is possible if you sacrifice and put in the work.
Those extra three hours that Jackson often spent by himself in the film room could’ve been spent hanging out with friends or playing video games or relaxing. But Jackson was on a mission to be the best that he could be.
Hankins is now on that same mission, and the stage is set for him to make his mark as an Iowa defensive back, considering he still has three seasons of eligibility.
Jackson had to wait until his fourth year in the program to nail down a full-time starting position, and even briefly switched to receiver in the spring of 2015, while the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Hankins started as a true freshman.
Hankins doesn’t like to dwell on the past, but he knows that playing well near the end of last season was good preparation for this season.
“It’s all in the past now, but it just built my confidence a little bit,” Hankins said. “So I’m just keeping on with gaining my confidence.”
Hankins formed an immediate bond with Jackson upon arriving at Iowa that was due partly to them both being from Texas. Being from the same state and playing the same position, they naturally gravitated towards each other.
“Of course, yeah, that was a big draw for me,” Hankins said. “I was under his wing and he helped me learn the defense better.”
But mostly, Jackson helped Hankins understand what it takes on a daily basis to compete at the Big Ten level.
It would be foolish to think that Hankins, as a true sophomore, could pick up where Jackson left off as arguably the best cornerback in college football as a fourth-year junior. But it also would have been foolish to think that Jackson could’ve picked up where former star cornerback Desmond King left off in 2016.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz doesn’t want Hankins to be pre-occupied with trying to live up to the challenge of being Iowa's next great defensive back. Ferentz just wants Hankins to focus on getting better each day and the rest will take care of itself.
“We just want them to play well, and if they end up playing like Josh did last year — nobody would have predicted that,” Ferentz said of the cornerbacks, which also includes junior starter Michael Ojemudia. “Nobody in their right mind would have predicted it last year at this time. But it happened, and that's one of the beauties of football. Not every guy up on that wall but a lot of the guys up on that wall over there — it's kind of their stories.”
Ferentz was referring to the wall of honor at the Iowa Football Complex in which all the consensus All-Americans, including Jackson, have a plaque on display.
“That's how you look at it,” Ferentz said. “Just like, hey, go out and play, but play your position. Don't try to be an All-American.”
Many of the players on Iowa’s wall of honor, including Jackson, were lightly recruited in high school. Jackson was a two-star recruit who picked Iowa over scholarship offers from Colorado State, Nevada and New Mexico State.
Hankins, on the other hand, reportedly had more than 20 scholarship offers from schools that included Michigan, Texas Tech, Missouri, Illinois and Colorado.
But Iowa stood out because of Phil Parker’s success with turning defensive backs into stars and future NFL players.
Hankins is determined to follow in the same footsteps as Jackson and King and Micah Hyde and Bradley Fletcher and Charles Godfrey and the great Bob Sanders, and all of the other former Iowa defensive backs who made it to the NFL.
"Coach Parker is a good coach, he gets a lot of people to the league," Hankins said in reference to the NFL.
What could be considered pressure, Hankins sees more as motivation.
He was only talking about the pressure to live up to the lofty standards set by previous Iowa defensive backs, or about trying to make it to the NFL, because reporters were asking him about it on Tuesday.
Hankins seems pretty locked into the moment, which is exactly where he should be after having started just two games in college.
“I don’t feel any pressure because at the end of the day, you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” Hankins said.
There is a point with any star player when all of the hard work and preparation has to give way to performance. Jackson certainly helped his cause by being prepared, but he also rose to the occasion by making big plays at pivotal times, like his one-handed interception in the 55-24 victory over Ohio State.
Hankins was inspired by seeing Jackson so often rise to the occasion, especially as a first-year starter, because it showed that anything is possible if you put in the work.
“I always knew he was a great athlete,” Hankins said of Jackson. “But just the plays he was making, you were in awe. Everybody was like wow.”