Iowa’s Josh Jackson continues evolution from backup to NFL Draft pick

NEW YORK — With the game on the line, Josh Jackson made the play for Iowa. Just like he has done so many times this season.

The Hawkeyes had scored with 3:09 remaining Wednesday night to take a 27-20 lead over Boston College in the Pinstripe Bowl. But on their ensuing possession, the Eagles drove near midfield and had a chance to tie.

Then, with just over a minute to play, a pass from Boston College quarterback Darius Wade bounced off the hands of Kobay White. Jackson, who was trailing the play, saw the ball, took two short steps and reached out to pick it off, ending the Eagles’ scoring threat.

“It was a good Christmas gift,” the junior cornerback said following Iowa’s win. “It was really special for me. It kind of sealed the game. It was a big momentum turn for us.”

The interception was Jackson’s eighth of 2017, tying an Iowa single-season program record and giving him the FBS lead.

“It means a lot,” Jackson said. “It was one of my goals coming into this year: trying to get as many picks as I can, just to help the offense set up scores. I really worked hard this offseason and coming into the season. I’m just really happy with the way it turned out.”

Coming into the year, few would have expected Jackson to evolve into the star he has become. He redshirted in 2014 and started one game over the next two seasons. Entering 2017, Jackson had recorded just 18 total tackles, no interceptions and six pass deflections in his career.

But Jackson earned that starting spot in the preseason, and he took advantage of the opportunity en route to becoming a unanimous All-American selection. He tallied his first interception in the Hawkeyes’ opener against Wyoming, and followed with a career-high six tackles in a victory over rival Iowa State one week later.

Jackson delivered his best performance in the Hawkeyes’ biggest win of the season, registering three interceptions — including a diving one-handed fourth-quarter pick in the end zone — to lead Iowa to a stunning 55-24 upset over then-No. 6 Ohio State.

Jackson also tallied two interceptions — both of which he returned for touchdowns — in an Iowa loss to then-No. 8 Wisconsin on Nov. 11.

Linebacker Josey Jewell, who recorded 11 tackles in the Pinstripe Bowl, said Jackson has become a lockdown corner who can shut down a third of the field on his own.

“You don’t have to help him out too much,” Jewell said. “He’s been making big plays for us all year.”

Following the Pinstripe Bowl, Hawkeyes coach Kirk Ferentz compared Jackson’s impact this season to the one made by former quarterback Brad Banks, who also started just one year for Iowa. Banks was the runner-up for the Heisman in 2002 and won the Davey O’Brien Award. Ferentz also said Jackson has matured throughout his time with the Hawkeyes.

“He’s got a tremendous attitude, just a great work ethic, always upbeat,” Ferentz said. “He’s the kind of guy you want in front of the room, you want in front of your other players. … He’s just a tremendous young man (and it’s) just fun to watch things come together for him.”

Jackson has one year of eligibility left in his collegiate career, but Wednesday may end up being his last game in a Hawkeyes uniform. He has shot up draft boards this season, and many project him to be a first-round NFL Draft choice.

Jackson said after the Pinstripe Bowl that he hopes to make a decision about his draft status sometime in January.

“I’m still in the process of thinking,” he said. “It’s really just about the opportunities (and) talking out all of the pros and cons.”

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