The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

The independent newspaper of the University of Iowa community since 1868

The Daily Iowan

Iowa football middle linebacker Jay Higgins is ready to shine and continue the Hawkeye standard

Higgins spent his last three years learning from linebackers Seth Benson and Jack Campbell — but it’s now time for his tools to lead the Hawkeye defense.
Cody Blissett
Iowa Linebacker Jay Higgins throws the ball during a football game between No. 25 Iowa and Utah State at Kinnick Stadium, on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023. The Hawkeyes defeated the Aggies, 24-14.

Beyond all of the running on grass fields in local parks, what Iowa senior linebacker Jay Higgins remembers best from his youth football days was his passion for the game — a passion that hasn’t faltered almost two decades later.

Higgins was an all-state linebacker in high school at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School in Indianapolis, Indiana. In his senior year, he ranked in the top 10 nationally in tackles and now holds the school record for career tackles with 471.

Higgins’ father, Roy, always found his son to be a special and energetic person who understood detail at a very young age. Roy recalled as far back as when Higgins was four years old pulling bales of hay to the end of his truck and fetching the wheelbarrow for him.

“Even though he was young, he would be able to do what needed to be done; he was able to accomplish the task,” Roy said. “He gained a football IQ early as a child, just from watching TV and just being a student of the game at an early age.”

Family has always been a big part of Higgins’ life. He finds motivation in his sister, Royce, who played volleyball at Mississippi Valley State and showed him what work is required to be a Division I student-athlete.

Roy and Higgins’ mother, Shelly — whom Higgins shares a tight-knit relationship with— raised Higgins in the church and belief in God. 

Higgins would join Roy, who pastored a church back home in Indiana, on revivals to cities across the country. Roy even served as the minister at Higgins’ baptism.

Roy was also Higgins’ first football coach, and he quickly noticed how his son stood out among the other kids in flag football — so much so that at eight years old, Higgins was already playing with 10 and 11-year-olds.

“When I was little, I would be in class, and I’d think about football. I’m 21 years old, and I’m in class, and I still think about football,” he said. “It just shows that I didn’t change much; football didn’t change much. [I’m] excited to be playing a game I love.”

Mic Roessler, Higgins’ high school football coach, first met Higgins on a visit to Brebeuf when Higgins was only an eighth-grader. But he immediately noticed how composed and mature he was for his age.

“After meeting his mom and dad, I could tell right away that his upbringing has been very special and [that] he’s just an all-around good guy,” Roessler said. “He’s very giving to others, which was our mission the whole time there at Brebeuf.”

When Higgins joined the Brebeuf football team soon after, Roessler noticed his knowledge both on the football field when making plays and in the film room when studying scouting reports. 

“That’s what that kid does so well is he knows where [the play] is going, and he is very elusive,” Roessler said. “I know that he’s got what it takes to go the whole game [at] the same speed, every play, bringing his buddies along with him. It’s going to be a blast to watch.”

With tremendous high school success that saw Higgins earn varsity letters all four years and all-state honors in his last three, Iowa defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell took notice. It didn’t take long for Higgins to develop a liking to Bell and the rest of the Iowa football staff. 

On June 23, 2019, Higgins committed to play football for the Iowa Hawkeyes.

But at Iowa, although Higgins was already a talented player, he had to sit back, wait, and watch behind starting linebackers Jack Campbell and Seth Benson as he developed into that next echelon. 

Higgins appreciates his predecessors for representing Iowa football, taking him under their wing, and leading him. He said the two taught him how to handle the highs and lows of the game as well as how to prepare for a game with the right attitude and effort, in turn showing him how to be a true leader on the field.

The process was a slow and steady growth.

While Higgins secured just two total tackles in the 2020-21 season and five in the 2021-22 season, he snagged 39 in the 2022-23 season with two starts as he absorbed Campbell and Benson’s knowledge and learned from the guidance of Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace.

After 2023 spring practice, Higgins was named Iowa’s first-team middle linebacker and team captain for the upcoming season. 

Now, Higgins sees his opportunity is in front of him, so he knows he has to take advantage of it.

“I just want to go out there and play football,” he said. “I want to go out there and be the mike [line]backer that Iowa needs and just continue to set the standard for what Iowa defense is all about.”

Higgins had 16 tackles in Iowa’s season opener against Utah State on September 2. 

Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said that number is what you’d expect from Higgins, who Ferentz always considered to be a starter even if he wasn’t listed as one. He noted Higgins’ leadership and commitment as well as the team’s reliance on him to make plays and tackles.

In his post-game media availability, Higgins cited a video of Inky Johnson, a former Tennessee football player turned motivational speaker, in which Johnson said, “Expectations are external, and the standard is internal.”

“I feel like you can put any linebacker that wears the Tigerhawk [out there], [and] he would have done the same thing,” Higgins said. “[I’m] just trying to live up to the standard [and] keep the defense moving forward.”

Iowa linebackers coach Seth Wallace recalled the historic bond Hawkeye linebackers have had, dating back to 2017 when Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann shared the middle line. 

He credited the linebackers who came before Higgins for their leadership, thus paving the way for newcomers like Higgins to replicate their success.

“What you would see out of Jay Higgins is not only a product of himself — how he was raised and the type of kid he is, what he’s experienced up to this point — but it’s also a product of the guys that he’s been around,” Wallace said. “When that happens, that’s when you get your [linebacker] room where you want it.”

But college football is now in the age of immediate eligibility for transfer players, prompting an increase in players displeased with their roles taking their talents elsewhere. More than 6,000 NCAA football players have entered the transfer portal since the start of the 2022 season. 

Still, Wallace saw Higgins, amid his patience waiting for his turn, gravitate toward Benson and Campbell playing ahead of him.

Wallace noted how Higgins’ words always demonstrate his desire to achieve and succeed for his coaches and teammates, a testament to “the type of kid he is.”

“He certainly had every opportunity to leave just like anybody else in our program if … they don’t want to wait their turn,” Wallace said. “But I think we should all step back, pause for a second, and just look at his situation and appreciate it for what it is.”

Iowa junior cornerback Cooper DeJean said Higgins made the biggest jump defensively over the offseason, and Higgins attributed his leap to staying focused and committed to the grind while he awaited his opportunity. 

“I just make sure I’m always learning, always trying to get better,” Higgins said. “I feel like when you’re in this program, when you’re in a room with [linebackers] coach [Seth] Wallace, he’s not going to let you become stagnant. [I’m] just always sharpening my tools, and eventually it’s time for my tools to be used, so I’ll be ready.”

And this season, it’s time for those tools to come into play. 

Higgins is now a big piece of the puzzle that is a tough Hawkeye defense, and he says its strongest characteristic is bringing 11 players onto the field who play for one another.

“We’re just one of those ‘bend, don’t break’ defenses,” he said. “You may punch us in the mouth, but the thing about us [is] we’re just going to keep fighting. If you can outlast us the whole game, kudos to you.”

And with the storied success of Hawkeye linebackers in the NFL, that standard continues in the Higgins household.

“Well, [there’s] no doubt he wants to play at the next level; [there’s] no doubt that I see him playing at the next level,” Roy said. “Right now, we’re just praying that he continues to have health and strength to reach that goal and … that the whole Iowa program will continue to pour all that they can into him so he will be successful on that next level.”

Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School’s mission prioritized service for others and Roessler preached teamwork on his football teams — both standards he said Higgins has and can carry with him to the NFL.

“This guy is not isolated; he’s authentic,” Roessler said. “Athletically, I think he’s got everything that it takes to continue his career on Sundays just because of the way he approaches the game and life as well.”

Roessler compared Higgins to former Indianapolis Colts tight end Jack Doyle, whom the Colts’ locker room looked to for leadership during team struggles because of his football knowledge.

“He’s one of my dogs still in the fight; I’m loving it,” Roessler said. “I know that Jay has the same tangibles [as Doyle], and I’m really excited and a big-time Iowa fan, so this is going to be fun.”

Although the long hours of hard work make Higgins reminisce on the simple game football was for him as a kid, he knows how far he’s come.

“Sometimes I miss going out there and just tossing it up,” Higgins said. “But I’m starting to get back to that place where football’s become that joy again, and I can play a little bit more looser now that I’ve put all those hard hours in.”

Roy said he appreciated the fact that his son had to wait his turn. 

“He’s just really successful now being a part of Iowa football and being a part of that standard,” Roy said. “We knew he was good, but we wanted him to be developed … and that’s the goal, constantly improve no matter where you [are] at.”

Roy said he learned to be patient upon seeing his son come up through the Iowa football system and finally into a position of leadership this season.

“Being [at] Iowa, you can expect no different; that’s what we do at Iowa,” Roy said. “Iowa’s a great linebacker school that develops, and now it’s [his] turn, and [he’s] ready to take the task. That’s what he’s done. I believe that’s what he’ll continue to do.”

Noting his family’s pride in his success on the gridiron, Higgins said football has become an avenue for him to give back to his family and express his appreciation for their support for him.

One such way for Higgins to give back to his family is with the money he earns from his name, image, and likeness [NIL]. 

But Iowa football’s Swarm NIL collective requires the players to do community service — such as the Iowa-Iowa State softball game for Make-A-Wish kids and the University of Iowa Hospitals — before they can earn any money, which Higgins appreciates.

“It’s helped me a lot,” Higgins said. “It’s not ‘nothing for something’ … We’re making a true difference.”

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About the Contributors
Colin Votzmeyer
Colin Votzmeyer, Assistant Sports Editor
Colin Votzmeyer is a junior at the University of Iowa studying journalism and mass communication with minors in history and criminology, law, and justice. Prior to his role as assistant sports editor, he previously served as digital producer, news reporter covering crime, cops, and courts, and sports reporter covering track and field and women's basketball. He plans on attending law school after his graduation with hopes of pursuing a career as a criminal defense attorney.
Cody Blissett
Cody Blissett, Visuals Editor
Cody Blissett is a visual editor at The Daily Iowan. He is a third year student at the University of Iowa studying cinema and screenwriting. This is his first year working for The Daily Iowan.