Penncrest grad Jonah Jackson’s improbable rise to become a starter in Ohio State’s explosive offense
The Media native has played the Nittany Lions before, but in games Rutgers never had a shot at winning. This time, he’ll enter the matchup on the side of 18-point favorites.
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- As the clock hit zero, the players on the Rutgers and Ohio State sidelines headed to the middle of the field for the perfunctory postgame handshakes. But amid the mass of red and white uniforms, something out of the ordinary happened: a line formed for Buckeyes’ starting left guard, Jonah Jackson, who transferred from the Scarlet Knights after last season and has since excelled in his final year of eligibility in Columbus.
The Media, Delaware County native has been a part of more wins this season for the 10-0 Buckeyes than in his three years playing for Rutgers, which recorded only seven wins, and just two in conference, from 2016 to 2018.
But on Saturday night there was no ill will on display for the 6-foot-4, 305-pound lineman who now suits up for the No. 2 team in the nation. There were only heartfelt hugs and pats on his back and questions about when he might be back in town next for a less formal reunion.
The 56-21 Ohio State win was an emotional homecoming of sorts for Jackson as it marked his first time back since his transfer.
“It was awesome," Jackson said. “I basically grew up here for four years of my adult life, and to be able to see the guys I grew up with and coaches and staff and everything, it was a great experience.”
This week, Jackson’s looking ahead to a new experience: taking on Penn State (9-1) in front of 100,000 Buckeyes’ fans at the Horseshoe. Jackson has played the Nittany Lions before, but in games Rutgers never had a shot at winning. This time, he’ll enter the matchup on the side of 18-point favorites.
Jackson never had any allegiance to Penn State, he said, not even as a kid growing up in Delaware County, so the game won’t bear sentimental significance.
But it will for his high school coach Rick Stroup, who watched Jackson mature and improve during his four years at Penncrest, and will be driving out to Columbus for the game.
“How good he’s become is a testament to how hard he’s worked,” said Stroup, now tight ends coach at Garnet Valley High School in Glen Mills.
Stroup said it’s difficult to gauge whether a high school player will succeed at the college level, and Jackson was no exception. He started to work hard as sophomore, to put in more time in the weight room and to mature as a person, Stroup recalled.
“He just really applied himself,” the coach said. “He was always very respectful. Just a great kid. A lot of fun to be around.”
At Penncrest, Jackson played a bit as a sophomore, and then earned a full-time starting job as a junior, primarily at left tackle and defensive tackle. As a senior, he was named first-team All-Delaware County and All-Central Athletic League. But he wasn’t a highly touted recruit. Aside from Rutgers, he received offers from UMass, Albany, and Monmouth, according to 247Sports.
With the Scarlet Knights, he redshirted as a freshman. With hard work, he began to see playing time, first in five starts at center in 2017 and then in 11 starts at right guard in 2018. Last year, he was also named a captain and was an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection by coaches and the media.
Upon graduation, he entered the transfer portal and looked to move on from a program that had just capped a 1-11 season and would go on to fire head coach Chris Ash four games into 2019.
Stroup talked with Jackson during that time, and the coach said he knew the decision was a difficult one for Jackson. Oklahoma, Virginia, and a couple other schools were also in the mix, Stroup said, but Ohio State seemed to be the best fit, despite Jackson’s initial discomfort in leaving Rutgers for another Big Ten school, let alone the most dominant one.
Jackson said he wasn’t sure what it would take for Rutgers to become competitive in the conference, but he got to know a lot of talented players and coaches during his four years there. For some reason, he said, the talent and execution just hasn’t come together Saturday after Saturday.
“It’s obviously not something you wish on anybody," he said of Rutgers’ struggles. "But being in the position I’m in now, I’m just blessed. I can’t thank God enough.”
This fall, the Buckeyes had to replace four of five starters on their offensive line, but competition was stiff. Jackson impressed right away. After just four days of camp, Jackson became the first player to lose the black stripe on his helmet, the Urban Meyer-started ritual that signifies a newcomer earning their spot on the roster.
Jackson’s current role is one of the most important, but least glorified, on the Buckeyes’ squad: to protect quarterback Justin Fields, who once orally committed to Penn State, and create lanes for running back J.K. Dobbins. The offensive line has improved greatly since last season, and in turn, Fields and Dobbins have been stellar.
“It’s just communication and execution," Jackson said. "Those are the two main things it comes down to when it comes to the pass game, and executing on third down, and being able to keep Justin [Fields] safe.”
While Dobbins said he wasn’t convinced Saturday’s game would be close, Jackson predicts “a good bout" with the Big Ten East on the line.
From somewhere in the stadium, Stroup will be watching the fight. And despite family ties to Penn State, in this game, he said, he’ll only be rooting for Jackson.