2024 Iowa defense receives major boost with LB Jay Higgins returning next season
LB Nick Jackson also reportedly granted waiver for sixth season
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – The day after Christmas delivered a fantastic gift for Iowa football fans as senior linebacker Jay Higgins announced that he will return for a fifth season.
Higgins, who is from Indianapolis, will use his free Covid year to play another season rather than pursue a professional career.
His decision to return is significant for reasons both on and off the field.
Higgins, in addition to leading the Big Ten in tackles this season, is a highly respected team leader and spokesperson.
And to have all those skills back for another season is a major boost for Phil Parker’s 2024 defense.
“I got more to prove,” Higgins said on the graphic announcing his decision on X, which is formerly known as Twitter.
Iowa now waits for defensive backs Cooper DeJean and Sebastian Castro to announce whether they will declare for the 2024 NFL draft, but it’s easier to wait with knowing that Higgins will be back.
Higgins made one of the biggest one-year improvements during the Kirk Ferentz era dating back to 1999.
Higgins is sort of the defense’s version of former Iowa quarterback Brad Banks in how he has gone from being a reserve last season to one of the best players in the country at his position this season.
Banks ascended from being the backup in 2001 to the Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2002, arguably the greatest one-year rise in program history.
Higgins will put a wrap on his breakthrough season when Iowa faces Tennessee in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida.
But as for next season, having an All-Big Ten tackling machine at middle linebacker gives Phil Parker a reliable anchor to build around.
Iowa will also return some talented and established defensive linemen, and depending on what happens in the secondary, the 2024 Iowa defense could be loaded again.
And that’s important because the defense has little margin for error with the offense struggling to hold up its part of playing what Kirk Ferentz calls complementary football.
Kirk Ferentz is currently looking to hire a new offensive coordinator to replace his son, Brian Ferentz, who will be fired once the season ends.
But now at least he doesn’t have to worry about replacing one of best linebackers in college football with Higgins returning.
Higgins, who had 18 tackles against Penn State, has shown this season that he is tough, durable, consistent and productive.
He has performed well in traffic, and in space.
Higgins and graduate transfer Nick Jackson have been one of the most productive linebacker tandems at the FBS level this season.
Jackson, who played his first four seasons for Virginia where he started 33 games, has reportedly been granted a waiver by the NCAA, according to Iowa Swarm CEO Brad Heinrichs, meaning Jackson could return for a sixth season.
However, it isn’t official at this point.
Jackson and Higgins have clicked since the season opener, both feeding off each other’s energy.
The decision by Higgins to return also puts less strain on Iowa in the transfer portal. Should Jackson also choose to return for a sixth season, Iowa would have arguably the best linebacker duo in the Big Ten returning next season.
Higgins is the kind of player that teams go searching for in the portal, a proven star, much like Jackson was when he entered the portal.
But Higgins is also different in that he’s determined to finish what he started as a Hawkeye, and that now includes a much-anticipated fifth season.
Now the question is will Jackson join him?