By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – One of the first things I noticed when the Iowa football team started playing games this season is the leadership and emotion from Alaric Jackson.
It was easy to overlook, or dismiss when Iowa started the season with losses to Purdue and Northwestern by a combined five points.
The Iowa offensive line, despite being a veteran crew, struggled at times in the first two games.
Even Jackson, despite being a fifth-year senior, and a four-year starter at left tackle, struggled at times in the first two games.
He did okay in the first two games, at times, showing his vast potential. But more was needed from Jackson and he certainly has met the challenge in the last two games in which Iowa prevailed by a combined 70 points against Minnesota and Michigan State.
It’s no coincidence that when Jackson plays better, the Iowa offense plays better.
But what has stood out even more about Jackson is the aforementioned leadership and emotion that the Detroit native has displayed throughout the season.
Jackson didn’t display the same kind of leadership and emotion in previous seasons, or so it seems.
From the very first offensive series this season, I started noticing Jackson often being the first player on the field to congratulate an offensive skill player who had just made a play with a fist pump, or a high-five or pat on the helmet, just something simple to show that he appreciated his teammate’s effort and contribution.
Leaders do those kinds of things, and the soft-spoken Jackson is thriving as a leader this season, something you would hope and expect from a senior, especially a fifth-year senior.
Jackson and sophomore center Tyler Linderbaum give Iowa two of the best offensive linemen in the Big Ten, and both will be counted on to play well in Saturday’s game at Penn State.
Iowa offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz had a zoom conference on Thursday and was asked about Linderbaum’s rise to stardom.
Brian Ferentz spoke glowingly about Linderbaum, a Solon native, but he also included Jackson in his answer.
“Tyler is playing at a really high level,” Brian Ferentz said. “If I had to single two guys out up front right now, Tyler is playing at an extremely high level, and so is Alaric. Those two guys are really setting the tempo for us up front, and some other guys aren’t far behind.”
Jackson has been setting the tempo as a leader from the very first snap this season, and maybe it’s simply due to being a fifth-year senior.
He injured his knee in the first game last season and then missed the next three games.
Jackson said he was about 70 percent healthy after he returned from the injury, and he told the media following the 2019 Holiday Bowl that he was looking forward to his senior season and being healthy again.
However, since those comments were made, a global pandemic has created a new normal, while the Iowa football program been accused of racial disparities by multiple black former players.
Chris Doyle lost his job as the long-time Iowa strength and conditioning coach as part of the fallout, and 13 former Iowa black players have filed a civil lawsuit that alleges mistreatment.
So what the Iowa team needs more than anything right now is stability and leadership, and Jackson seems determined to fill that role.
He recently became a vegan and he is no longer playing in the shadow of fellow tackle Tristan Wirfs, who was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year last season as a junior, and a first-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the 2020 NFL Draft.
This is Jackson’s offensive line right now and he’s treating it that way.
He is also performing at a level that should make him attractive to NFL scouts, and the same for Linderbaum, who is a third-year sophomore.
By taking it upon himself to be a better leader, Jackson is just adding to his NFL stock.
Switching to the Iowa defense finds another senior who has excelled as a leader this season, and that’s cornerback and Texas native Matt Hankins.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker also met with the media on zoon Thursday, and he singled out Hankins for his leadership.
“Matt Hankins, really up and beyond what I thought he would be at this time; he has been such a great leader, to all the guys not only in the secondary, but I think the team,” Parker said. “And the development he’s had and just watching him practice and competing on every play, whether it’s in a special teams aspect of it, maybe he’s not even on the first team or second-team special teams, but when we go down there and work the other side, he’s working his best on working on releases.
“So I just see the difference he has there for the leadership that we need and continue to do that. So I’m very happy with that.”
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hankins has emerged as a senior leader.
This is the same young man who was benched in a game last season after struggling on the field, but he made no excuses afterwards when addressing the media. Hankins was obviously disappointed, but more so in himself, and he said he looked forward to the competition in practice.
Hankins returned to the starting lineup the following week and started in all 10 games in which he played last season.
Hankins and Jackson are sort of the face of Hawkeye right now, and that’s just what the program needs in the wake of racial unrest.
Hankins was very vocal this summer about his desire to kneel during the National Anthem, and he and Jackson were among approximately 30 Iowa players who knelt during the National Anthem in the two games at Kinnick Stadium.
The current players, both black and white, say the culture is changing for the better and that voices are being heard and that all views are being accepted. The black players say they’re not walking on egg shells anymore and feel they can be themselves.
Iowa’s response to being 0-2 points to good leadership and it’s easier to lead when you’re happy and comfortable in your environment.
Iowa football had taken steps to be more inclusive and to be more racially aware and sensitive, and Hankins and Jackson, as two black players, are showing their appreciation with their leadership.