Jay Higgins was never going to make anyone forget Jack Campbell. What he did instead was make a name for himself that, same as Campbell’s, will be long remembered in Iowa Hawkeyes lore.
Higgins was the next man up at middle linebacker when the consensus All-American and Butkus Award winner left after last season and became a first-round NFL draft pick.
Higgins has turned into a prodigious tackler just like his predecessor. He’ll return to his hometown of Indianapolis for Saturday night’s Big Ten championship game against No. 2 Michigan with 141 tackles in 12 games. That’s most among Power Five players and 13 more than Campbell had in 13 games last season.
“It ain’t surprising me,” Campbell, now a starter for the Detroit Lions, said Wednesday. “I know he wanted to play at a young age. Who doesn’t? Especially with the transfer portal, he could of left, but he stayed and it has paid off.”
Campbell hardly came off the field in 2021 and ‘22, so Higgins excelled on special teams and took whatever playing time he could get at linebacker.
Any pent-up frustration from waiting his turn was unleashed at Kinnick Stadium when he made 16 tackles and broke up two passes in the opener against Utah State. A few weeks later he made a career-high 18 stops against Penn State, and he had six other games with at least 10 tackles.
“I’d say probably the most fun I’ve had at Iowa so far,” Higgins said of his fourth season. “Obviously, I love my experience here. But when you’re the guy that’s just learning and you’re in the system watching Jack Campbell and Seth Benson make all the plays and have all the fun, it gets a little challenging.
“Those memories in Kinnick when you’re the one making plays, you know how much you sacrificed for the moment. It means a little more.”
Higgins’ season is the result of his never taking a day off when it would have been easy for him to so as a backup, defensive end Joe Evans said.
“When a guy is working his tail off like he has, and when he goes out there and he’s making big play after big play and leads the Power Five in tackles, it’s not shocking because I see all the work that he’s been putting in,” Evans said. “He means so much to this team.”
Higgins, a member of The Associated Press midseason All-America second team and a semifinalist for the Butkus Award, has taken the same career path as many Iowa players.
Iowa was the only Power Five school to offer him a scholarship. Seven of the Mid-American Conference schools offered him, along with Tulane and Air Force.
Higgins was a consensus three-star recruit, but he only ranked 19th out of the 21 high school players who signed with the Hawkeyes in 2020, according to the 247Sports composite.
Campbell and another linebacker, Seth Benson, were Higgins’ role models and his position coach, Seth Wallace, brought him along.
“Coach Wallace does such a great job, year in and year out, but ultimately it starts with Jay,” Campbell said. “It starts with the kind of person he is — big on the details — and it carries over to the player he is, and he’s having a heck of a year.”
Coach Kirk Ferentz said he and the staff were confident Higgins would play well when he got his opportunity.
“I’m not sure any of us could have predicted he would play at the level he’s playing right now,” Ferentz said. “He replaced one of our best all-time players in Jack Campbell. I’ve always talked to our guys about if you want to get better, pay attention to people and know what they’re doing. Jay was taking notes.”
AP Sports Writer Larry Lage in Allen Park, Michigan, contributed.
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