Just two games into the season, a couple players have become Iowa’s emerging difference makers when they are on the field for the Hawkeyes. Wide receiver Charlie Jones and linebacker Jestin Jacobs have had a significant impact on this Iowa football team. Neither entered 2021 with much playing time under their belt at Iowa, but their ceilings are high. Continued production between Jones and Jacobs will keep Iowa in the national discussion.
The Buffalo transfer made a name for himself in the 2020 season as the primary punt return man for the Hawkeyes. Charlie Jones returned all but one punt on the season and averaged 11.1 yards per return with a touchdown. Jones is a wide receiver on the depth chart, but did not record a single reception last season. However, he did receive All-Big Ten honors as a return specialist at the end of the year.
He is the main kick and punt return man this year and continues to excel at the position. Against Indiana he returned two kickoffs for 63 total yards while averaging a little over nine yards per punt return. The Hoosiers struggled offensively and Jones was opportunistic on punts and set up the Hawks with great field position all day. Against the Cyclones, Jones returned two kickoffs for 44 yards. In four punt returns in the Cy-Hawk game, he averaged 13.3 yards per return, continuing to give Iowa great field position. He took one to the house last season, and is a threat to do it again with every kick. Having a guy like Jones back deep gives the Hawkeyes a great advantage in explosive-play potential and field position.
With the departure of Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Brandon Smith at receiver, Jones has stepped into the role seamlessly. Through two games, he has lined up at receiver for 44 passing snaps as compared to just 16 all of last year. The senior has taken on a bigger role on offense and has produced solid numbers to this point. Of Iowa’s wide receiver pass distribution, he has been targeted on 33% of throws from Spencer Petras this year. Jones had a spectacular catch in a tight window against the Cyclones for a 26-yard touchdown. He was able to create good separation to get open in the end zone and is shaping up to be another reliable target next to Tyrone Tracy Jr. this season.
In an already stout defense, when number five is on the field, things just feel different. Sophomore linebacker Jestin Jacobs is 6’-4” and 235 pounds and makes noise in the middle of the defense. Jacobs has only lined up for 55 total snaps this season, but he ranks first for Iowa in both rush defense grade and tackling grade according to Pro Football Focus.
Jacobs showed his athleticism and football awareness against Iowa State on a key play midway through the third quarter. Up 14-10, Iowa State was starting to get some momentum on their side but lined up at their own six yard line. Jacobs shed a tight end block and lunged at Iowa State running back Breece Hall punching the ball out. At the bottom of the screen, four Hawkeyes were in position for the easy scoop-and-score. On that play alone, Jacobs managed to completely turn the game in favor of Iowa. His ability to shed the block and not only tackle Hall, but punch the ball out was a showcase of his awareness and athleticism. From that point forward, Iowa took a commanding lead and never looked back.
Although he is a linebacker on the depth chart, Jacobs can play great coverage defense. He has the third best overall coverage rating on the Hawkeye defense, and has recorded a pass breakup on just four targets in man coverage. Not only that, but he can hit hard. Jacobs dropped into zone coverage on a play against Iowa State and delivered a solid hit resulting in no gain. The tackle looked ordinary at first, but the way he brought the receiver down so quickly and stopped him in his tracks was impressive. His hits are reminiscent of Bob Sanders in the way he immediately halts players at the point of contact. Jacobs has a short resume to this point, but through just two games he has looked like a difference maker at the linebacker position.
Iowa’s Emerging Difference Makers
The sample size is small, but the production has been big. In the first two contests of the season, Charlie Jones and Jestin Jacobs have shown they can be that key addition to their respective sides of the ball. With these two playing to their potential, they could help lead Iowa to a very successful season.