Alaric Jackson Penn State

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Alaric Jackson stood in the bowels of San Diego’s dilapidated SDCCU Stadium last December talking about progress and redemption. Iowa football’s starting left tackle had just helped his team roll over USC, 49-24, in the Holiday Bowl.

It would have served as a strong conclusion to an underrated college career. He could have headed to the NFL and been collecting a paycheck right now. He let it me known, then and there, that wasn’t his path.

Jackson explained that returning for his senior season would allow him to earn his degree. He also was seeking consistency on the field that alluded him during an injury-plagued 2019.

The plan absorbed a big hit a few months later. The COVID-19 pandemic struck and spring football was canceled. In August, the Big Ten postponed its season until the spring before reversing course. Iowa was set to open its season Oct. 24 at Purdue (2:30 p.m. CT, BTN).

Through it all, Jackson controlled what he could control. He worked toward his academic and athletic goals. Much of it came down to bettering his mind and body.

The Detroit native became a vegan during the offseason.

“He’s doing a great job,” offensive line coach Tim Polasek said. “This guy has had a really good start to the 2020 season. I’m happy for him. He’s found a way to be more into each and every day, all the activities. He believes the diet thing has impacted him in a positive way and that’s half the battle. He seems to be in a great place.”

Jackson is soft-spoken publicly. He’s not making a big deal out of his transformation or his plant-based diet.

“It’s not real crazy. I feel like it’s there to eat a cleaner lifestyle with football, honestly. It keeps me more fluid,” he said.

His body weight has remained at 320 pounds but he’s eliminated significant body fat. He’s worked with strength and conditioning coach Raimond Braithwaite on making sure he maintains strength and stamina with proteins other than meat.

“I support him for becoming a vegan because it’s healthy for him. From our perspective, we’re just trying to help him and coach him to make sure it works in the realm of the sport of football. It’s doable. It’s a challenge but it’s very doable,” Braithwaite said.

Jackson stepped into the starting lineup as a redshirt freshman in ’17. He’s started 34 games at left tackle. Polasek, who never has coached a vegan before, has noticed a difference in him since his diet change.

“He’s quicker. He’s more sudden. I see a change in the morning. He’s got a little more energy so maybe there’s something to this. Maybe we all should take some notes,” Polasek said.

Chauncey Golston, a fellow Detroit native who rooms with Jackson, has been taking notes. And while he’s still eating meat, he has supported his friend’s changes.

“He’s a really hard worker. He’s been doing everything from the diet to extra film study. Whenever we’re at the apartment, he’s always watching extra film. He’s been doing the little things on and off the field,” Golston said.

Jackson (6-6, 320) was named third-team all-Big Ten by conference coaches and media after last season despite missing three games with a knee injury. He didn’t like how he played upon his return and that factored into his decision to come back for his senior campaign.

He begins ’20 on the Outland Trophy Watch List for a second year in a row. He’s a preseason second-team all-American according to Athlon and on Phil Steele’s third team. CBS Sports lists him as the No. 72 prospect overall for the ’21 NFL Draft.

Jackson could push his way farther up the draft boards if his new lifestyle pays off as he hopes. And while he and Polasek continue sharing a strong bond, the coach and culinary aficionado is disappointed about one aspect of the relationship.

“He no longer appreciates my pictures of the jerky I smoked,” Polasek said.