How will Iowa replace their early draft entries? Josh Jackson edition

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 27: Charlie Callinan
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 27: Charlie Callinan /

Now that the 2017 college football season is officially over, the Hawkeyes have a better idea of some of the holes they need to fill heading into the 2018 season. It was obvious that junior cornerback Josh Jackson was going to declare for the NFL draft , but with the news now official, Kirk Ferentz and Phil Parker have their work cut out for them in finding his replacement.

The most encouraging takeaway about Josh Jackson’s departure is that Jackson himself is an example of an unheralded player that broke out into stardom. Jackson didn’t earn consistent playing time in 2016 until November when starter Greg Maybin went down to injury. He was mostly an unknown.

Just a few short months ago, I was wondering how in the word the Hawkeyes were going to replace Desmond King. Enter Jackson, who led the nation in total passes defended with 26 (18 pbu, 8 int) and is now headed to the NFL draft a year early, destined to be drafted in the first round.

Will Iowa have another player breakout  the way Jackson did this past season? Three other Hawkeyes started at corner in 2017, and all of them are returning to Iowa City next season. There are also a couple of redshirted and incoming freshman that could be difference makers at the position.

Manny Rugamba will be a junior, and after an exciting freshman campaign in 2016, he fell victim to the sophomore slump in 2017. His season started with a one game suspension and then he was torched for over 100 yards on passes thrown his way in his season debut against Iowa State. He saw his time dip throughout the year, splitting time with sophomore Michael Ojemudia before eventually being replaced in the starting lineup by freshman Matt Hankins for the final two games of the season. Rugamba finished the season with just 4 pass breakups and no interceptions.

Rugamba excelled as a freshman covering the slot in the team’s nickel package, and as an undersized defensive back he may be better suited for that role. There were plenty of opportunities for him to prove himself against larger wide receivers, but more often than not opposing quarterbacks took advantage of him in those match ups. With Ojemudia standing at 6’2 with excellent length, and Matt Hankins waiting in the wings, Rugamba’s role could be limited to nickel duty in 2018.

Ojemudia had his fair share of struggles in 2017 as well, so like Rugamba, his playing time is far from safe. It might be time for an overhaul at the position.

If defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Phil Parker is seriously considering a youth movement at corner, it would likely be centered around sophomore Matt Hankins. Hankins clearly earned the coaching staff’s trust, as evidenced by his presence in the starting lineup against Nebraska and Boston College, when he racked up 12 tackles and a pass breakup.

When asked before the Pinstripe bowl if he believed that Hankins could be the next King/Jackson, Parker didn’t dismiss the idea.

“I think he has the ability to do that. One thing about football players nowadays with social media and everything — to keep them grounded, keep them hungry — we’ve got to do a good job with that, and that’s my job” Parker said. “If I see you do something once, then I expect that. And once you’ve done it, you’ve got to keep on going and see how much better you can get.”

The belief in Hankins is there, it’s up to him to capitalize on his opportunity.

If Parker is looking for someone other than Ojemudia or Rugamba to start opposite Hankins, the best in-house options are currently Cedric Boswell, Josh Turner and Trey Creamer. But one name that Hawkeye fans should keep in mind is incoming freshman D.J. Johnson.

The 4-star recruit out of Indianapolis chose Iowa over Notre Dame, LSU and Ohio State. Anytime Iowa steals a recruit from national title contending schools, including the Big Ten’s best, fans should be salivating.

While there may not be a single starter set in stone at corner for the 2018 season, there will be 6 to 8 different players with different skill sets who should legitimately have a chance to get onto the field. Coach Ferentz has often said that competition brings out the best in players, if that statement rings true this time around, then cornerback might end up being Iowa’s strongest position.