On Redshirts, Attrition, and The Great Iowa Hawkeye Talent Drain

We received a question from the fine gentlemen at oversigning.com, who monitor recruiting practices in general and that Southern tactic of signing more players than you have spots in particular:

Just out of curiosity, I compared Iowa's list of signing commitments 2002 to 2010 (Rivals) to published rosters (scout.com) over the same period. Ferentz averages 22 players signed a year. He also seems to lose an average of 9 of those players prior to their senior year. So, on average, Iowa signs 22 a year, or 88 over 4 years. But Iowa on average loses 9 players per class, or 36 over 4 years. That's a net deficit of 33 GIAs UNDER the NCAA maximum. I double checked, because those numbers seem impossible. I checked at least two rosters for each "missing" player to make sure I was catching as many red shirts as possible. In other words, I may have missed an important detail in my count, and I am sure I probably missed a player or two.

But assuming I haven't missed something obvious - 33 GIAs? Let's assume I missed 10 kids somehow. That's still 23 missing GIAs - a full signing class.

Clearly, Iowa fills those GIAs somehow. Walk-ons? Junior college transfers? What am I missing?

The answer comes from a number of sources, but let's get the math right first.

Iowa redshirts the vast majority of incoming players (three out of every four, to be exact).  Of the 109 players on the roster at the end of last season, 92 redshirted.  More important to the question at hand, Iowa redshirted 85 of the 117 players they initially signed to a scholarship over the last five years.  In other words, when you're compiling numbers on Iowa's roster, you're almost required to use five years; the 88 over four years is actually 110 over five.

There's also a small fallacy in the "loses 9 players per class" part of that math.  It's not so much that Iowa loses less than 9 per class as much as the timing of that attrition.  For instance, the 2006-2008 classes have lost 26 players, an average just below 9 per class.  The youngest two classes, on the other hand, have lost a total of 8 players, or 4 per class.  It's not to say that they won't eventually lose 9, but that they don't lose 9 players as soon as they hit campus as freshmen.  The rate appears to be a loss of 2-3 players per class for their first three years on campus, at which point those who have survived generally stay until graduation (or leave early for the NFL).

Finally, an error comes from using Rivals as the list of choice.  Iowa tends to give out a scholarship or two to specialists, long snappers, and fullbacks after Signing Day.  Those offers that don't usually make the Rivals list.  The five-year commitment lists from Rivals list 110 Iowa scholarship recipients; that number was actually 117.

This basically answers the primary question: If Ferentz hands out 117 scholarships, less attrition and four-year graduates (we'll get to this later), he has 82 on scholarship across five classes.  This leaves only three spots to fill, spots which were presumably given to two walk-ons (Brett Greenwood, Paki O'Meara) and one JUCO transfer (Woody Orne).  So there really isn't the problem the emailer thought he'd found.  If you want to use the nine-year averages of the emailer, it's 24 per class, or 120 scholarships, less approximately 38 lost to attrition or four-year graduation (9 per class in the fifth-year senior, fourth-year senior, and junior classes, 6 sophomores, 3 freshmen, and 2 early graduates).  That, again, is 82 players.  The numbers are fine.

That's not to say there aren't problems.  Because when you dig into the data and see just who is leaving the program early, the problems are both obvious and potentially significant.

From the five classes in the program at the end of this season (2006-2010), 34 scholarship players have left the program early.  They are as follows:

2006 (7*): Bowman, Cleveland, Douglas, Nelson, D. Smith, J. Smith, Spievey
2007 (8): Bulaga, Coleman, Everson, Morrow, Moses, Pugh, Sash, Satterfield
2008 (11): Blackwell, Brinson, Cato, Griggs, Guillory, Hampton, Paine, Shane Prater, Robinson, Semmes, Staten
2009 (6): Brown, Harrell, Murphy, Ngoumou, Schiavone, Wegher
2010 (2): Ferguson, Gray

That list is innocuous enough; four players from the 2006 class left in the CBI purge, three guys in the 2007 class were involved in the Cedric Everson scandal, three guys left early for the pros, four guys didn't qualify, etc.  There are reasons why these guys left, to be sure.  But look at this list of players who didn't redshirt (players who eventually left the program in italics):

2006 (3): Bowman, Douglas, Edds
2007 (8): Ballard, Bulaga, Coleman, Everson, Morrow, Moses, Pugh, Satterfield
2008 (7): Cato, Guillory, Hampton, Herman, Lowe, Paine, Shaun Prater
2009 (3): Davis, Hyde, Wegher
2010 (8): Coker, Fiedorowicz, Hitchens, Kirksey, Lowery, Miller, Morris, Shumpert

It usually takes something special to shirk a redshirt at Iowa: Of these last five classes, less than one-quarter of incoming players see the field as freshmen.  Those who play as freshmen are generally the most highly-touted athletes, as well: Of the thirteen Rivals four-star recruits in the Iowa Classes of 2006 through 2010, nine played as freshmen.  Yet nearly half of the players who have left the program early in the last five years were non-redshirts, when redshirts remain in the program at a rate of 83%.  If you take out last year's freshmen and sophomores (who, as we've previously discussed, are still a year or two from reaching full attrition), 13 of 18 players who did not redshirt have left the program early, with only one of those leaving for an early jump to the pros.  On the other side of the coin, only two players from the classes of 2006 and 2007 -- A.J. Edds and Christian Ballard -- avoided a redshirt and left the program in good standing after four years.  That's two in eleven.  We're not just losing players of alarming quantity, we're losing guys with enormous potential quality, with talent so palpable that they can step onto the field almost immediately, and we're losing them as redshirt freshmen and sophomores, well before they've reached full capacity.  For any program, that is unsustainable.  For Iowa, where winning teams are built on the discipline and experience that only years in the program can provide, it is positively disastrous.

In 2009, Iowa walked a tightrope to nine consecutive wins.  When we talked with Spencer Hall of EDSBS about the team's progress to that time, Spencer made a very astute observation: Iowa has a very thin top layer of talent, with a boatload of inexperienced tight ends and halfbacks and option quarterbacks to convert below it.  Strip away that top layer and Iowa becomes beatable.  One week later, Northwestern stripped away Ricky Stanzi, that top layer was sufficiently gone, and the winning streak came to a halt.  The point is this: We have opponents, whether it be Fitzgerald or Tressel or Pelini, who are looking to strip away that layer and feast on the soft center of Iowa football.  We can't afford to be chipping away at it ourselves.

 

* -- I didn't include DJK, though he was technically kicked off the team before the bowl game, because he played in the final regular season game as a fifth-year senior.  For the purposes of counting scholarships, he made it.

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