Iowa football’s Jay Higgins emerges as leader in linebacker room

The senior from Indianapolis, Indiana, is looking to continue the legacy left by linebackers Jack Campbell and Seth Benson.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa linebackers Seth Benson, Jay Higgins, and Jack Campbell pose for a photo with defensive back Riley Moss during the 2022 TransPerfect Music City Bowl between Iowa and Kentucky at Nissan Stadium in Nashville. Campbell plans to enter the NFL Draft this year. The Hawkeyes defeated the Wildcats, 21-0.

Kenna Roering, Sports Reporter

Despite the departure of linebackers Jack Campbell, the reigning Butkus Award winner, and Seth Benson, a 2022 second-team All-Big Ten selection, Iowa football’s linebacking group still has sky-high expectations. 

Senior middle linebacker Jay Higgins, who saw action in 12 contests last season and racked up 39 tackles, is leading the charge.

“We definitely lost some leadership, which is why guys like myself and Kyler Fisher have to step up,” Higgins said at spring practice media availability on March 30. “I’ve been learning from Jack for the last three years, so him leaving just gives me the opportunity to continue what he focused on and continue what he taught me. Now, it’s time for me to teach the younger backers.”

The linebacker competition has been stout throughout the Hawkeyes’ first full week of spring practice. Higgins said each linebacker has been rotating through the MIKE, WILL, and LEO positions and are getting equal opportunities to show their versatility. 

While Higgins said he is most comfortable at MIKE, or middle linebacker, learning the ins and outs of all three linebacker positions is beneficial to the defense’s success. Higgins also said his overall knowledge of the defense has improved from last season because he’s learned the responsibilities of those around him and honed in on the details — something that FootballScoop’s 2022 Linebackers Coach of the Year Seth Wallace preaches to his squad.

“As a linebacker, it’s one thing to know what you do, but it’s another thing to know what the big picture does,” Higgins said. “Just knowing where our coverage is supposed to rotate, what my defensive end is supposed to do, what my corners are supposed to do, or where my safeties should align — that has nothing to do with me, but Coach Wallace preaches the details. If I know what’s hard on my corner, and I know how they’re trying to manipulate Quinn Schulte, then I know how to be a better team leader and a better linebacker.”

RELATED: Previewing Iowa’s 2023 football team

In Iowa’s initial spring depth chart, Higgins was listed as the first-string middle linebacker followed by sophomore Jaden Harrell, who hails from Urbandale, Iowa. 

Harrell gained valuable experience last spring when Campbell, Benson, and Jestin Jacobs all missed spring football due to off-season procedures, but he didn’t see any game action in the fall. Now, Harrell is striving to take the next step and build off of what he learned last season.

And with the addition of linebacker Nick Jackson, a transfer from Virginia, Harrell said he and his other younger teammates have extra incentive to work harder. Jackson, who committed to Iowa on Feb. 8, started in 33 games and played in 40 total in his four years with the Cavaliers. He recorded 352 total tackles, 20 tackles for loss, and 10.5 sacks throughout his career and led the ACC with 10.4 tackles per game last season. 

The 2022 Iowa defense is arguably one of the best that’s ever come through Iowa City. The Hawkeyes surrendered 13.3 points per game in 2022, ranking second nationally, and gave up 10 or fewer points in nine games. Iowa also held opponents to 270.8 yards per contest and led the nation in defensive scores with seven. 

Iowa will return several key players on the defensive line from 2022, including Joe Evans and Noah Shannon, who decided to come back to Iowa City for their sixth season. So, while Campbell, Benson, and projected first-round NFL draft pick and defensive lineman Lukas Van Ness are hard to replace, Higgins is confident this year’s squad will live up to Iowa’s dominant defensive track record. 

“We have standards for a reason, and they need to be met. Nothing shy of the standard is acceptable,” Higgins said. “We have plenty of talent, plenty of guys returning. Having more guys out there who have significant snaps under their belt makes me feel more comfortable when I’m out there. So, I’m just going out there with extreme confidence that these guys I’m out there with are capable of getting it done.”

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