It's been all quiet on the wrestling recruiting front for the last few months, but that figured to change after the biggest recruiting weekend of the year: nearly a dozen recruits (including more than a few blue-chippers) were in attendance this weekend to check out practice with the current Iowa wrestlers, take in the pomp and pageantry of the primetime Iowa-Northwestern football game, and whatever else goes on during recruiting visits. And change it has: Iowa added three verbal commitments on Monday, lower-weight stars Thomas Gilman and Topher Carton and upper-weight blue-chipper Sam Brooks.
Of the three, Brooks fills the biggest need by far. He's the 20th best senior in InterMat's HS rankings, 22nd best in d1collegewrestling's rankings, and 2nd at 195 on The Open Mat. He was an Illinois state champion at 160 lbs. in 2010 and state runner-up at 171 lbs. in 2011, but he wrestled at 189 lbs. at the Junior Nationals this summer (where he placed third in Greco-Roman and fourth in freestyle) and projects at 184 lbs. or 197 lbs. in college. Obviously those are two weights where Iowa has considerable need: 184 is devoid of options aside from Grant Gambrall and 197 has, well, no one of any renown. If he slots in at 184, the timing would be excellent: his redshirt year would be the same as Gambrall's senior year. On the other hand, if he's a better fit at 197 (which seems quite possible), he could be an immediate option there. Iowa's M.O. under Brands has been to redshirt all true freshmen, but the lack of options at 197 could force him to adjust that plan. Regardless of where he slots into the lineup, though, Brooks provides exceptionally valuable depth at an area on the roster where Iowa badly needs options.
In an interview with Andy Hamilton, Brooks admitted that prior to his visit to Iowa City last weekend, Illinois and Minnesota were his top two (he also had offers from Oklahoma State and Missouri, so yeah: he's a big-time prospect). What swayed him to Iowa? The fans, of course:
"I want to wrestle in Carver-Hawkeye Arena in front of all those fans, and I feel like that's where I have the best shot of being the best wrestler," he said. "I love the way Iowa guys wrestle. That's how I want to wrestle."
The excellent credentials of the Iowa coaching staff and the legacy of success (both in the recent and not-so-recent past) are obviously big reasons for Iowa's appeal to prospective recruits, but the quantity -- and quality -- of the Iowa fanbase is also significant. There isn't another program in the nation where you can go and wrestle in front of over 10,000 intensely passionate (and knowledgeable) fans -- it's an atmosphere that truly is second to none in the world of college wrestling.
Thomas Gilman doesn't come to Iowa at a position of great need like Brooks, but he does come as Iowa's most celebrated recruit of the last few years. He's the 5th ranked prospect (all weights) by InterMat and d1collegewrestling and the 2nd ranked wrestler at 119 lbs. by The Open Mat, making him Iowa's highest-ranked recruit since Mike Evans in 2010 (also a top-5 guy). As you might expect with a ranking that high, he has a pretty sparkling resume: Junior National Champion and three-time undefeated Nebraska state champion. He's wrestled -- and beat -- a lot of other top guys across the nation. Gilman chose Iowa over Nebraska and Oklahoma State and while he was a lifelong Iowa fan, he was hesitant to pull the trigger with Iowa -- especially after they landed Clark, another elite recruit in Gilman's same weight range.
"After they picked up Cory Clark, I really wasn't sure if that was the place to be," Gilman said. "But then I started thinking about it and that's what Iowa wrestling is about. They bring in the best guys and have them battle it out and whoever comes out on top is going to be the guy starting and probably winning a national championship. I figured I'd just go there and have the best workout partners, coaches, best facilities, best everything."
Needless to say, that's pretty much the perfect attitude for an Iowa wrestler to have (and, based on the video above, he definitely wrestles an Iowa-friendly style). Competition is not something to be feared but embraced -- which is precisely the attitude you find at elite programs across the country, no matter the sport. Alabama brings in elite football recruits on top of elite football recruits, Duke brings in elite basketball recruits on top of elite basketball recruits, and so on. Hell, I'm sure in the world of women's
field hockey lacrosse recruiting, Northwestern brings in elite recruits on top of elite recruits. That's just the way it works -- and how the very best stay the very best.
(Also, if you want to see a match between Clark and Gilman, you're in luck.)
Topher Carton, Iowa's third verbal commitment from the weekend, is the least splashy of the bunch (he's not ranked by InterMat, d1collegewrestling, or The Open Mat), but his excellent prep record (121-0, three-time state champion) suggests that he doesn't lack for potential. Carton's a Quad Cities kid; he won his first two titles for Rock Island Allerman before moving across the river to Davenport Assumption and winning another title last year. Like fellow Iowa commits Cory Clark and Thomas Gilman, he'll be trying to become an unbeaten four-time state champ this year. Part of the reason Carton doesn't register on a lot of recruiting lists is because his body of work is almost exclusively limited to what he's done in high school meets and tournaments: he hasn't been nearly as active in the national tournaments or summer scene as many other recruits and as a result doesn't have a very big body of work against top wrestlers. None of that means that he's a bad wrestler, of course -- Brands isn't in the habit of recruiting sub-par wrestlers and 121-0 is nothing to sniff at. Carton's commitment was hardly unexpected, either. There were rumors that he had committed to Iowa as far back as July and he's a self-described longtime Iowa fan:
"I've been a Hawkeye fan for a couple years now and I've always wanted to wrestle for their program," he said. "It all kind of came together these last couple years."
It would have been far more of a shock if he'd opted to not come to Iowa (his other offers were from Indiana and Bucknell).
The bigger question is figuring out where Gilman and Carton slot into the Iowa line-up. Unlike Brooks, who projects at weights where Iowa is in dire need of help, both Gilman and Carton project at weights were the depth chart isn't nearly as bare. Gilman projects at 125 lbs. or 133 lbs., while Carton is (for now) slotted at either 133 lbs. or 141 lbs. And there's fellow verbal commit Clark, who also projects at 125 lbs. or 133 lbs. There's also some young options already in the room, like Tony Ramos (a sophomore and the projected starter at 133 lbs.), Josh Dziewa (a redshirt freshman and a possible starter at 141 lbs. after Montell Marion departs), and Jake Ballweg (a redshirt freshman and possible starter at either 141 lbs. or 149 lbs.). One of Gilman or Clark will likely take over for McDonough at 125 lbs. in 2013 (unless Ramos drops down to that weight as a senior), but the other will either have to wait a year to replace Ramos -- or do battle with Dziewa and Ballweg at 141 lbs. And, of course, Carton may have a say in those battles, too: he's nowhere near as highly-rated as either Gilman or Clark, but high rankings don't automatically translate to collegiate dominance. Just ask Matt McDonough, who was almost an afterthought as an Iowa recruit, but is on pace to have one of the finest careers of any Iowa wrestler in recent memory.
That said, having a surplus of options is hardly a bad thing -- in fact, it's one of the things that's helped make Iowa such a dominant force in collegiate wrestling. Having high-quality depth not only gives you options if injury, illness, or good old "academic indigestion" strike -- it also makes your starters better by giving them better practice partners. "Iron sharpens iron" is a tired old cliche... but it's also very true when it comes to a sport like wrestling. You get better by competing against the best day in and day out, so the more top wrestlers Iowa can squeeze into the practice room, the better for everyone involved. Of course, the downside of that is that there are only ten starting spots, which means some talented wrestlers may get buried behind other talented wrestlers. Take Iowa's situation at 133 lbs.: Tony Ramos seems likely to start, which means that guys like Tyler Clark and Nate Moore (potential All-Americans) get stuck riding the pine.
And if nothing else, Iowa's recruiting success this weekend should quiet any concerns about the slow start to recruiting or about the loss of Doug Schwab as a recruiter. Schwab's doing a bang-up job at UNI, but Brands & Co. can clearly still put together a very strong recruiting class. With the additions of Gilman, Brooks, and Carton to the already-verballed Clark, Iowa now has three recruits in the Top 25 -- and it doesn't sound like they're done. By the time this class is done, it could rival the excellent top-ranked 2010 recruiting class.