By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa defense had a massive hole to fill at linebacker where Jack Campbell and Seth Benson both had moved on after last season.
Campbell is one of the greatest and most highly decorated linebackers in program history. He was the recipient of the 2022 Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top collegiate linebacker, and he would go on to be selected in the first round of the 2023 NDL draft by the Detroit Lions.
Benson was often overshadowed by Campbell’s presence, but Benson also carved an impressive legacy as a three-year starter for Iowa.
So, it was easy to assume that there would be a decline in the play at linebacker this season, but that hasn’t happened thanks to the new dynamic duo of seniors Jay Higgins and Nick Jackson.
They have combined for 220 tackles heading into Friday’s regular-season finale at Nebraska. That is the highest total by a Power 5 tandem in the nation.
Higgins leads the Big Ten, and ranks third nationally, with an average of 12.6 tackles per game.
The Indianapolis native is also a semifinalist for the Butkus Award.
Jackson, a graduate transfer from Virginia, is second on the team with 87 tackles and he also has seven tackles for loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, two pass break-ups and five quarterback hurries.
Jackson finished his 451 tackles as a Virginia linebacker, and he now has a whopping 538 tackles overall.
If ever there were a case of reloading rather than rebuilding, Iowa has it with Higgins and Jackson.
And it has been accomplished in two vastly different ways: player development in the case of Higgins and using the transfer portal in the case of Jackson.
The Iowa coaches developed Higgins as a player and also convinced him to stay the course at a time when many players transfer if they aren’t starting right away.
Higgins was willing to wait until his senior season to be a starter.
The Iowa coaches convinced Jackson, who is from Atlanta, Georgia, to be a Hawkeye when he had multiple options, including Oklahoma.
Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz, defensive coordinator Phil Parker and linebacker coach Seth Wallace, all deserve credit in both cases.
Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell also deserves credit for recruiting Higgins to Iowa, and for explaining how the Iowa culture works.
“I had too much respect for coach Wallace, and I understood the process with coach Ferentz and with coach Parker,” Higgins said earlier in the season when asked why he never seriously considered transferring. “I understood what type of program I committed to. If we were a program that was all about the instant gratification, then maybe I would have left. But that’s not what they sold me on when they were recruiting me.
“So, I just remember what they told me, and I remember what coach Bell told me when he recruited me. It’s easy to say one thing but my opportunity and my circumstance, I actually had to live it and stay patient.”
The Iowa coaches couldn’t afford to be patient after losing Campbell and Benson to graduation.
They searched the transfer portal for somebody that could help immediately, and they found just what they needed in the 6-foot-, 237-pound Jackson.
“Nick Jackson, talk about a home run there,” Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday. “Really good player, productive player in college, but also a really good guy who’s, again, one of those guys, if you get him in the room with the guys that are younger, pay attention to him because he knows how to operate.
“That’s what you’re looking for is guys who are going to be teaching other guys, this is how you do things the right way, whether they’re just here for a year or preferably four years would be even better. That’s what you’re hoping for.”
To say that Jackson believes he made the right choice might be an understatement based on what he said in his interviews with the media on Tuesday.
When asked if his one and only season as a Hawkeye has gone as he envisioned, Jackson said:
“I think it’s been better, honestly. I didn’t really know what I was envisioning. I didn’t really know that I was going to get into the transfer portal. I didn’t really know a lot of different things. So, I don’t think I ever had like a straight-up vision of like what everything was going to turn out to be.
“So, everything has come way better than I ever could have imagined. I’m really thankful to be here, and I’m really thankful for my teammates and everyone that has helped me be here.”
Jackson played four seasons for Virginia, and he made second-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference last season. He had 22 games in which he recorded at least 10 tackles.
He also earned a degree from a highly respected institution in Virginia, and he is now taking graduate classes at the University of Iowa.
Jackson always has spoken fondly of his time at Virginia, but he just wanted a change, and a chance to play for a team, and for a defense, that has set a pretty high standard.
Virginia has a 3-9 record this season and is nine games below .500 (39-47) since the start of the 2016 season.
Jackson also endured tragedy as a Cavalier when three of his former Virginia teammates were shot and killed last November.
Jackson gave his heart, soul and body to Virginia football, but he wanted a fresh start to the end of his college football career.
Jackson has found it as a Hawkeye, playing a key role in Iowa (9-2, 6-2) already having won the Big Ten West Division title.
Jackson was fortunate to find the perfect fit because that doesn’t always happen in the portal.
Jackson, Huggins and Kyler Fisher, who Iowa’s third linebacker and a key reserve, were among 20 Iowa seniors that were honored before last Saturday’s 15-13 victory over Illinois on Senior Day at Kinnick Stadium.
It is a moment that Jackson will cherish forever.
“I’m really thankful for the team, them embracing me and bringing me in here,” Jackson said. “It couldn’t have gone better, just coming in here, and as much as I’ve learned and the people I’ve gotten to meet.
“The finality of that, just all getting together and having my parents on the field, just getting those moments and those last times in Kinnick, that was awesome. I can’t put it into words.
“And then Hawks win, you can’t go wrong there.”
Iowa has a chance on Friday to win 10 games in a regular season for just the fifth time in program history.
Jackson never won 10 games at Virginia.
So, this is new to him.
There has been speculation that Iowa might take Friday’s game lightly due to already have won the West Division.
But Jackson quickly dismissed that concern.
“We knew when we signed up for football, we get 12 games,” Jackson said. “Every game matter so much and we have another opportunity to play football. Any time you get a chance to play a football game, you don’t take that for granted. You really can’t take any game for granted.
“So, it’s another opportunity for us to get better. It’s another opportunity for us to compete and play the game we love. And we’re trying to go win the football game.”