By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Since the end of the Iowa football season, most of the attention has been on who is leaving the team early for the NFL Draft, and deservedly so because it’s a big deal.
Iowa could have two juniors picked in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft in offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs and defensive end A.J. Epenesa.
It probably would be considered a surprise if they both weren't picked in the first round.
Junior defensive back Geno Stone also has declared for the 2020 NFL Draft, along with fourth-year junior running back Toren Young.
And quarterback Peyton Mansell has transferred to Abilene Christian in his home state of Texas where he will have two seasons of eligibility.
So a lot has happened since Iowa crushed USC 49-24 in the Holiday Bowl on Dec. 27th in San Diego to cap a 10-3 season.
But it’s something that didn’t happen that deserves more of our attention, and that is the purpose of this column; to remind Hawkeye fans that Alaric Jackson’s decision to return for his senior season can’t be understated from an importance standpoint.
It’s huge for so many reasons because Iowa now gets to build around the only four-year starting left tackle under Kirk Ferentz, and maybe in program history, instead of having to break in a new starting left tackle.
Instead of having to replace both starting offensive tackles, including the 2019 Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year in Wirfs, Iowa now only has to replace one of them with Jackson returning to protect the new starting quarterback’s blindside.
Jackson’s situation changed the moment he limped off the field with a knee injury in the season opener against Miami of Ohio.
He would go on to miss three games and never was at full strength after he returned from the injury.
Jackson told the media after the Holiday Bowl that his injury really set him back and convinced him that he should return to Iowa for his senior season.
He apparently made the decision to return on his own, and without even consulting with Kirk Ferentz.
“I think he sensed that he needs this year, and there’s no question in my mind that he needed it,” Ferentz said at Monday press conference. “Whether or not he would have listened to me or not, that’s a whole different discussion. But he came to the conclusion on his own, and I’m really proud of him for doing that.
“Maybe the injury factored into it because he was really practicing well, last spring, and last August he practiced really well. He looked like a really good lineman, and then things came apart when he got injured. That’s the hard part about being hurt.”
Jackson was actually more celebrated than Wirfs heading into this past season after having made second-team All-Big Ten as a third-year sophomore by the coaches and the media in 2018.
There was talk that both of them could become high draft picks in 2020, especially with Jackson being a fourth-year junior after having redshirted in 2016. But then Jackson’s injury shifted all of that focus to Wirfs, who now seems poised to meet the challenge.
Iowa has starting experience returning at four of the five offensive line positions, and Jackson already twice has made all-Big Ten and will be a fifth-year senior.
Jackson made third-team All-Big Ten this past season by the coaches and media despite missing three games.
The Detroit native is hardly a finished product, but at 6-foot-6 and 320 pounds, and with feet that made him successful as a high school center in basketball, Jackson has a chance to be Iowa’s next great offensive lineman.
Spencer Petras, or whomever wins the competition to replace Nate Stanley at quarterback, will have the luxury of knowing that one of the Big Ten’s best left tackles is protecting his blindside.
The Iowa running game certainly has to improve, and the chances of that happening, obviously, are better with Jackson anchoring the offensive line.
So not to take away anything from the players who are leaving early for the NFL, but the most important thing to happen to the Iowa football team since the season ended is something that didn’t happen.
Alaric Jackson is returning for his senior season and that should have everybody’s attention.