North Texas Iowa Football

Iowa defensive back Josh Jackson (15) celebrates with teammate Miles Taylor, left, after intercepting a pass against North Texas on Sept. 16.

AP file photo

IOWA CITY | In the midst of a breakthrough season, everything has become a bit of a blur for Josh Jackson.

Big-time statistics. National award semifinalist. Best in the country. First-round NFL draft pick.

The accolades and mentions are coming at the Iowa cornerback as quickly as an opposing receiver.

He brushes most aside, preferring to focus on the task at hand.

“I’m just trying to do the best I can. That’s really the only thing I’m concerning myself with right now," said the junior who is more than filling the lineup spot that Desmond King has owned the past four seasons.

Jackson is thriving at an often thankless position on a defense, filling a role where success is measured one play at a time.

He leads every player in the nation with 17 passes defended and 15 passes broken up, shares the Iowa team lead with two interceptions and has recorded a career-best 33 tackles to help the Hawkeyes to a 5-3 start to the season.

Last week, ESPN draft expert added Jackson to “big board" of prospective draft picks and Pro Football Focus listed the fourth-year junior as a late first-round choice in a mock draft.

This week, the Corinth, Texas, native joined teammate Josey Jewell as a finalist for the Bednarik Award, presented annually to the top defensive player in college football.

Jackson has heard the chatter, and but prefers to maintain a narrower focus.

“I haven’t been paying much attention to that stuff," Jackson said. “I’m trying to focus on the season. It’s just not something that I’m really focused on or think much about."

For now, he’s preoccupied with his play at cornerback, a position where you’re only as good as your last opportunity.

Minnesota quarterback Demry Croft sent seven passes in Jackson’s direction last week. The Golden Gophers completed one.

Jackson broke up four of those passes, including one he tipped that safety Jake Gervase wrapped his arms around for an interception at the goal line in the Hawkeyes’ 17-10 victory.

“Josh is kind of a nightmare matchup. I was surprised when they kept throwing at him after the first half when he had a couple of breakups and some big plays on third downs," Gervase said. “He’s one of those guys who comes in and gets after it."

That approach has carried Jackson from a reserve role into helping lead a defense that has held seven of its eight opponents below their scoring average by an average of 11.1 points per game.

Jackson simply sensed it was his time.

With King at left cornerback and Greg Mabin on the right side exhausting their eligibility at the end of the 2016 season, Jackson sensed an opportunity.

Injuries, first to Mabin and then to Manny Rugamba after he replaced Mabin, provided Jackson with a taste of competition a year ago.

He saw significant minutes in the Hawkeyes’ regular-season finale against Nebraska and made the first start of his career in the Outback Bowl against Florida.

Five of the 10 tackles and two of the four passes Jackson broke up last season came during those two games.

His efforts then provided Jackson with a realistic picture of where he stood at the midpoint of his college career, allowing him to measure performance against potential.

He wanted more, and then went to work to make that happen.

“The first couple of years, you don’t really know how to prepare well," Jackson said. “It’s more of a learning thing. You just add things to your toolbox as you go."

Jackson dedicated himself to earning the opportunity that was in front of him.

“With the open spots, it was both my first chance and in some ways, my last chance," Jackson said. “I knew I had to get ready this spring and then come back ready this fall if I wanted to put myself in a position to play."

His concentrations during the offseason included rededicating himself to growth in the weight room, watching more tape than ever and working to gain flexibility needed for him to make the most of his perfect-for-the-position 6-foot-1 size.

The results of his efforts quickly caught the attention of coach Kirk Ferentz during fall camp, who in August suggested Jackson might have been among Hawkeyes who made the most growth during the offseason.

“Just watching him go through that out-of-season program, had a good spring and Josh has always been a talented guy, but he just had to go through that maturation process that players go through," Ferentz said.

“He’s a couple of years into the program now. I think he knows his position a little bit better, understands the expectations of what we’re looking for, and he’s done a great job of playing defensive football for us."

But, Jackson wants more.

“I came in this spring, really trying to lay it all out there and earn a spot," he said. “I’m just trying to be the best player I can be every day. I can get better. I see that on tape every week. That’s the motivation now, to become even better and help our team."

He’ll get that chance in Saturday’s 2:30 p.m. game against third-ranked Ohio State, where the precision of quarterback J.T. Barrett will test Jackson.

The Buckeyes’ senior has completed 75 percent of the passes he has attempted in his last six games and has spread the ball around while building a resume that includes 2,166 passing yards, 25 touchdown passes and just one interception in 246 attempts.

Barrett is working with a core group of six receivers who have caught at least 13 passes and two touchdowns this season, all ready to test Jackson.

“Just looking at them, they are really aggressive and physical and we have to be physical and aggressive back as well," Jackson said. “I think it will be fun challenge to go against those guys."

Contact Steve Batterson at sbatterson@qctimes.com.

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