IOWA CITY, Iowa — Every day of every practice in their Iowa football careers, Many Rugamba and Joshua Jackson had the opportunity to watch Desmond King and Greg Mabin compete in practice, games and the video room.
King and Mabin combined for 86 career starts and both are currently on NFL rosters. Jackson, now a junior, played two seasons with the former duo after moving back and forth from defensive back and receiver during his freshman year. Rugamba, a sophomore, played only one season with King and Mabin. But both holdovers learned plenty from their older peers and as the likely starters for the upcoming season, they hope to apply those lessons to the field.
“A big thing I learned from [King] was just to compete,” Rugamba said. “No matter what was going on, just compete. As long as things play out, as long as you’re giving effort and you’re competing and you’re out there applying what you’ve learned in practice, things just might fall in place.”
“I think whenever Mabin and Desmond were ones and I was a two, you really had to pay attention and watch them and try to avoid making the same mistake — if they made a mistake — and just really use their sense of knowledge, wisdom on the field and in the meeting room,” Jackson said.
It’s almost unfair to measure either player — or any future cornerback — alongside King. As a two-time All-American, King won the 2015 Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. He intercepted 14 career passes and started a school-record 51 games. Mabin, who started 35 games, wasn’t as decorated but had 3 interceptions and saw several more passes in his direction. The Los Angeles Chargers drafted King in the fifth round. Mabin competes for the Buffalo Bills.
But Rugamba (6-foot, 185 pounds) and Jackson (6-1, 192) have had their own moments and experiences. Jackson was the team’s dime defensive back in each of the last 2 seasons. He has career 18 tackles and 6 pass breakups the last two seasons.
As a freshman last year, Rugamba entered the game as the fifth defensive back when Iowa shifted to nickel coverage. He thwarted a Minnesota drive with an interception midway through the season. Mabin suffered a season-ending broken foot in early November, and Rugamba moved to the starting lineup for No. 3 Michigan.
Rugamba’s performance belied his inexperience. He intercepted a pass in the fourth quarter, knocked away a pass in the end zone and broke up another one that enabled Iowa to get the ball for the game-winning drive. He earned co-Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors after the game and was solid in every phase.
“He made some really big plays in a big game at critical times,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Maybe as big a play as we’ve had in the season, quite frankly. That’s got to be good for him as long as he keeps his feet on the ground and keeps thinking about getting better and working hard. I have no reason to think that he won’t. If his attitude stays the same, he’s obviously going to be physically bigger. He was like a rail last year.”
Rugamba backed up his performance with a career-high 7-tackle effort in a 28-0 win at Illinois. Rugamba also forced a fumble and recovered it. In the regular-season finale against Nebraska, however, Rugamba left the game with a shoulder injury. He did not play in the Outback Bowl against Florida.
Jackson replaced Rugamba for the Outback Bowl. It was a good chance for him to gain starting experience, and it propelled him to work hard this offseason.
“I think getting that start gave me a little sense of confidence to run with the ones and play with everybody, play against Florida,” Jackson said. “I think it was a great opportunity to start and see how you match up against players. I think it’s after that I came to meetings with a sense of purpose, trying to get better every day with a focus in the film room and focus on the field and in strength and conditioning.”
Ferentz noticed that maturity within Jackson.
“It’s interesting. He’s always been a good kid, but two years ago he was kind of like an unmade bed,” Ferentz said. “He had a lot of loose ends and not a big detail guy. His growth and maturity, especially in the last eight months, has been really fun to watch. I will go back to a road game back in 2015 where he was competing against a really good player [Northwestern’s Mike McHugh] on our boundary on a third-down play. You see little snapshots like that and think, ‘Boy there is something here with this guy.’ But he wasn’t ready to play full time. Now I think he is.
“He just kept going through it and had a phenomenal summer, as good as anyone we have. Those are good indicators that a guy is getting there mentally, and he’s ready to meet the challenge.”
Iowa’s secondary has an underrated tradition under defensive coordinator Phil Parker. In 7 of the last 8 years, an Iowa defensive back was named first-team All-Big Ten. Since 2000, NFL clubs have drafted 12 Iowa defensive backs.
“It’s definitely inspiring and it’s definitely something that makes me practice harder, makes us practice harder as a team,” Rugamba said, “knowing all the guys that came before us. We try to preach to leave the jersey in a better place.”
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