Alaric “A.J.” Jackson got a late start in football, waiting until his junior year at Detroit Renaissance to go out for the sport.
Jackson’s first love was basketball, but with his size (6-foot-6) and athleticism, his high school coaches told him that football could be his future.
And, Jackson’s future looks bright, entering his junior year as a second-team All-American by multiple preseason publications, along with being a possible first-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft as a left tackle.
But, all Jackson is interested in right now is helping Iowa turn last year’s close losses into wins to help the Hawkeyes win the Big Ten West title for the chance to play for the conference championship.
Jackson came home to Detroit this past weekend with his Iowa teammate and longtime friend, Cedrick Lattimore (Detroit East English), to attend a friend’s birthday party.
“It’s my junior year and it should be a big year for us with returning guys and new guys,” said Jackson. “Last year we lost a lot of games by one possession, so if we capitalize on some things we should have a chance (to win West division).”
Iowa finished 9-4 last season (5-4 Big Ten) with a 27-22 win over Mississippi State in the Outback Bowl. The Hawkeyes lost three conference games by six points or less, 30-24 at Penn State, 38-36 at Purdue and 14-10 to Northwestern.
Iowa returns five starters on offense, including quarterback Nate Stanley (2,852 yards, 26 TDs), receiver Brandon Smith and offensive linemen Tristan Wirfs and Cole Banwart joining Jackson.
Running backs Mekhi Sargent (745 yards, 9 TDs) and Toren Young (637, 5) also return with each averaging 4.7 yards a carry last season.
“Nate Stanley is a good leader on our team,” Jackson said. “Our running backs are coming back, and our D line is very good with returning guys like (Chauncey) Golston, Lattimore, (Brady) Reiff and (A.J.) Epenesa who is a great key for us.”
Epenesa is considered to be a first-team All-American and first-round draft pick as a 6-6, 280-pound defensive end. He led the Big Ten in sacks (10 1-2) last year as a sophomore despite not starting a game.
Jackson takes pride in his preseason hype, but just wants to get back on the field.
“Those are good accolades,” Jackson said. “It’s nice to have, but I don’t really pay any mind to it. I’m more so looking forward to having a great season for my team because none of that matters unless you produce on the field.”
Jackson is happy with his decision to play at Iowa, saying he has developed in multiple ways.
“They don’t load it on you right away when you get here,” Jackson said. “It’s a process. You listen to the older guys, follow guys around to help you out.
“When I first got here I was 6-5, 335 coming out of high school. Now, I’m 6-6, 320. We have a great staff, and Coach (Chris) Doyle (strength and conditioning) really prepares us.
“I didn’t know a lot technique-wise in high school, just went out and played. Now, going on four years, I’ve learned a lot. It’s a great O line school. Coach (Kirk) Ferentz is really an O line coach. That’s how he started out, and he’s pretty hands on.”
Ferentz, who started at Iowa as Hayden Fry’s offensive line coach in 1981, starts his 21st season as the head coach of the Hawkeyes, surpassing his former boss’ run of 20 years (1979-98).
“I made a great choice coming to Iowa,” Jackson said. “I feel my strength is run blocking. I’m trying to improve my pass blocking, being more efficient, more consistent.”
And, on his future?
“I’ll concentrate on that after the season,” Jackson said. “I just want to do the best I can to help us win.”
And, Jackson - who is majoring in Enterprise Leadership for Business - plans to attend more Iowa basketball games this winter with Bakari Evelyn (Southfield Christian) transferring in from Valparaiso.