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Jay Higgins tabbed Phil Steele’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year

After waiting his turn to take over as a full-time starter, Iowa linebacker Jay Higgins blossomed into a star last season with the Hawkeyes.

Now, the Indianapolis native is reaping the rewards of his record-setting 2023 college football season.

Higgins was announced as Phil Steele’s Preseason Defensive Player of the Year on Tuesday. The 6-foot-2, 233 pound linebacker was also tabbed as a preseason first-team All-American by Phil Steele.

Higgins tied a single-season school record in 2023 with 171 total tackles, including five tackles for loss and a pair of sacks. The Brebeuf Jesuit Prep product finished with double-figure tackles in 10 of 14 games for the Hawkeyes last season.

Higgins also added five pass breakups, one forced fumble and one interception in 2023. Over the course of his Iowa career, Higgins has registered 217 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups, 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one interception.

Following his breakout 2023 campaign, Higgins was honored as a first-team All-American by the Football Writers Association of America, Phil Steele and Sports Illustrated. He earned second-team All-American accolades from the American Football Coaches Association, CBS, Walter Camp, Associated Press and Sporting News.

Higgins will anchor a Hawkeye defense that returns a wealth of experience. Nine defensive starters return for Iowa.

That group features Higgins and Nick Jackson at linebacker, defensive linemen Deontae Craig and Yahya Black and defensive backs Sebastian Castro, Jermari Harris, Deshaun Lee, Xavier Nwnakpa and Quinn Schulte.

Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker spoke in the spring about why Higgins and some of his other defensive stars elected to come back.

“Well, it’s always kind of hard when you’re going through that transition of like, hey, you’re going to go out into the real world, whether you go into the NFL or whether you’re going to go to dental school like Quinn is going to do, and he had an opportunity to push that back so it gave him a reason that he could come back and start it.

“But everybody has different philosophies or reasons why they want to go. I just thought that the connection that they all had and saw the opportunities here, what could they do this year, how can we be better than we were last year, and I think the connection is really good with these guys, the way they’ve been together so long and playing together. It’s hard to leave because once you leave, there’s no coming back,” Parker said.

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz said it’s a big lift for the program.

“That’s always a good thing. You want to keep good players around, but you don’t want to do it again if it’s not what’s best for them. They have to make that decision. That’s not our decision to make for them. But getting all the guys back was great.

“I think some momentum. Once a couple guys decided they were going to do it, we built some momentum that way. I think these guys feel a brotherhood or whatever. There’s teamwork, there’s a team aspect where they all kind of want to keep going here and keep playing, see what they can do,” Ferentz said.

Iowa opens its 2024 college football season on Aug. 31 against Illinois State from Kinnick Stadium.

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Story originally appeared on Hawkeyes Wire