Jonah Jackson discovered about 100 text messages on his phone when he returned from a workout in January.
It was hours after his name had appeared in the NCAA’s transfer database, allowing college coaches to contact him. Jackson planned to leave Rutgers as a graduate transfer after starting for two seasons on its offensive line.
As he scrolled through the messages, a call flashed across the screen. It was an unknown number from the 614 area code. On the other end was Ohio State offensive coordinator Kevin Wilson. Jackson turned to his workout partner, a teammate also pursuing a transfer, and whispered with glee, “It’s Ohio State.”
Wilson explained that the Buckeyes needed interior offensive linemen after their starting center and guards left.
“There's no guarantees,” Wilson said, recalling his pitch, “you're going to have to earn your position, but I don't think we need transfer backups.”
The confidence from Wilson and others on the Buckeyes’ coaching staff followed a recommendation from then-Rutgers coach Chris Ash, a former assistant.
But Jackson, who has started at left guard this season for Ohio State and will return Saturday to New Jersey when the Buckeyes visit the Scarlet Knights, never suspected the wave of interest that came after his entry into the transfer portal, catching the attention of college football blue bloods after he had toiled at a perennial cellar-dweller.
“It was kind of a surreal moment for him, because I think deep down, he really just considered himself that big fish in a small pond,” said Nick Palmer, his former high school offensive line coach at Penncrest in Media, Pennsylvania.
When Jackson was a prospect, he never garnered much attention. Rutgers was the only Power Five conference school that offered him a scholarship. He had not started on Penncrest’s varsity team on a full-time basis until his junior season.
Jackson held some optimism about Rutgers’ trajectory when he arrived on campus in 2015. In the previous season, the Scarlet Knights’ first in the Big Ten, they finished 8-5 and reached the Quick Lane Bowl.
But in his four seasons on campus, they never had more than four wins, including losing 12 straight Big Ten games before he transferred last winter. They’ve lost all six conference games this season, too.
“It's definitely something that’s very difficult,” Jackson said. “Nobody wants to lose.”
Losing became common enough that offensive line coach AJ Blazek, now in the same role at North Dakota State, sought to motivate players through a system known as “pride points.” He awarded the offensive linemen the points based on their performance in games and practices, selecting a winner each week and presenting them with a glass skull they could display like a trophy in their locker.
“Sometimes ‘pride points’ take your mind off it for a little bit,” Blazek said.
Jackson collected a lot of them. As Ohio State coaches considered Jackson as a transfer, their defensive linemen vouched that he was one of the stronger interior offensive linemen they had faced in the Big Ten, even if Rutgers was often overmatched.
“He just went out there, and he worked hard,” said his father, Brian Valentine. “It didn't matter. He always said, ‘You know, I’m going to go out there and give it 100 percent, 110 percent, every game.’ And that's what he did, even on a losing team.”
The strong work ethic was shaped by a blue-collar family in Media, a southwest suburb of Philadelphia.
Jackson, the fourth of five children, helped out at his father’s car detailing shop before he was a teenager. As he grew older, he took other summer jobs, working construction at friends’ companies and delivering pizza.
“He’s just a hard worker,” Valentine said. “You can always count on him.”
One summer several years ago, after Valentine injured his back and couldn’t work for weeks, Jackson took over running the shop.
His diligence helped him prepare to win a starting job on the Buckeyes’ offensive line in preseason training camp.
In the months before his arrival for summer workouts, Jackson trained at the TEST Football Academy in Martinsville, New Jersey. It was like a purgatory stage as he finished undergraduate classes at Rutgers before enrolling at Ohio State and required him to follow his own workout and diet regimen without any supervision.
Buckeyes coach Ryan Day has referred to Jackson as a “pro” at various points.
“He brings a certain level of maturity and stability to that line,” Day said.
Jackson thought the stage between schools helped his growth.
“You have to provide food yourself,” he said. “You have to wake yourself up to go work out because there's nobody telling you that you have lift at 6 a.m. It's you telling you that you have a lift at 6 a.m. That definitely helped me mature.”
Cooking for himself was never a struggle, though. Jackson grew up watching Food Network shows like “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” and “Iron Chef” and had appreciation for making meals. At Rutgers, he often cooked big breakfasts for the other offensive linemen, a menu that included eggs, toasted muffins and scrapple, a pork-based dish that is popular in eastern Pennsylvania.
As Jackson prepared to join the Buckeyes, he also kept his focus due to competition. Though Wilson was confident he could win a starting job at one of the guard spots, and he had experience at center, Jackson knew his counterparts were all mostly former blue-chip recruits.
“I was definitely not nervous, but there's some question marks coming in,” he said. “Being at this place, there's a lot of talent around you. if you're not on your P’s and Q’s every day, somebody else is and your job can be taken.”
Any fears have been eased now.
After a win over Wisconsin two weeks ago was when Jackson said he really appreciated his situation, a key figure on a College Football Playoff contender after a long stretch of losing.
“I was just looking around and I was like, 'Well, I really am blessed to be in this position,” Jackson said. “I have no complaints.”