We're not going to shut the door in any area. We've got four young guys out of that state right now in our program. And we have hope that all four of those guys will continue to grow and do a good job and make an impact. We've definitely cut back our efforts down there the last six, seven years. It's like anything. It's where you invest. And typically, if you get to know coaches a little bit better, your chances are better.
--Kirk Ferentz, last week, on Iowa football recruiting in Florida
The initial iteration of the Ferentz dynasty, the 2001-2004 teams, were built at home and in the trenches. Ferentz mined Iowa for line talent in 1999 and 2000, and turned that raw material into the nation's best offensive line by 2002. But while Iowa was full of farmboys ready to wear black and gold in XXXL sizes, finding talent at linebacker, cornerback, and the skill positions was more difficult. The Hawkeyes' staff was primarily from the Midwest and Northeast, but when it left the Midwest, it went South. Way south. And it sent its most tenacious recruiter to the Sunshine State, a young linebackers coach named Bret Bielema.
Iowa cast a wide net in those days, but Florida was the secret weapon behind Iowa's early-decade resurgence. Florida generated a boatload of talent for Iowa's program in the early 2000's. Cornerbacks Antwaan Allen and Benny Sapp, safety Marcus Paschal, defensive tackle Colin Cole, and linebackers Abdul Hodge, Edmond Miles and Fred Barr came to Iowa from Florida and became significant contributors. So did wide receivers C.J. Jones and Mo Brown. Quarterback Brad Banks, who was recruited out of a Mississippi junior college, was originally from Florida, as well.
Soon after Bielema left, Iowa's recruiting in Florida imploded. Phil Parker, who had never scouted Florida before (and had been Iowa's connection to Michigan to that point), briefly recruited the Sunshine State and was largely unsuccessful. In 2003, Iowa added just one player from Florida, safety Chris Brevi. He spent three seasons in Iowa City while coaches tried to turn him into a linebacker before transferring to FCS Stony Brook. In 2004, Iowa signed two Floridians: Running back Damien Sims, who had a successful four years in the Iowa program as a capable backup to Albert Young, and Ettore Ewen, who spent a couple of injury-plagued years in the program before becoming Dolph Ziggler's sidekick in the WWE. The 2005 class, Parker's last as primary Florida recruiter, featured four-star fullback Kalvin Bailey and two-star defensive tackle Vernon Jackson. Bailey had grade problems and bounced around junior colleges for a while. Jackson had a promising start to his career, but suffered a career-ending injury after his redshirt freshman season. In 2006, Iowa added Troy Johnson and Lance Tillison, both two-star recruits. Johnson stayed for five seasons and made seven starts, but never rose above a utility infielder role. Tillison oddly left the program and returned as a walk-on. Of Parker's seven Florida signees, only two were significant contributors.
In 2007, newly-signed defensive line coach Rick Kaczenski took over Iowa's efforts in Florida. Things only got worse. Jevon Pugh was Kaczenski's first commitment; he got pulled into the Everson/Satterfield investigation and left after one semester. Iowa landed three commits out of Florida in 2008: Running back Jeff Brinson (one career carry), quarterback David Blackwell (did not qualifty), and defensive back Jack Swanson (completed his scholarship with zero starts and 13 total tackles). Of those three, two transferred back to Florida schools within three years. The Hawkeyes' 2009 Florida recruit, cornerback Joshua Brown, spent a semester on campus before transferring to an Arizona community college and, eventually, South Florida. 2010 recruit DeAndre Johnson was perpetually in Ferentz's doghouse and was sent packing last summer after being cited by local police twice in three days. Through his first four years, Kaczenski batted .000 on five Florida recruits. Since Bielema left, Iowa was 2/13 in Florida.
There are four players on Iowa's current roster from Florida: Quarterback Jake Rudock, wide receiver Torrey Campbell, wide receiver Greg Mabin, and defensive end Daumantas Venckus-Cucchiara. None of the four have made a significant contribution yet, though all four are underclassmen. Rudock is the semi-presumed starting quarterback next year, and was coveted by Miami (though only after Al Golden had arrived). None of the others had any recruiting buzz whatsoever. Only Campbell had an offer from a Florida BCS-level school.
So what happened? Losing Bielema was certainly part of the problem, as shown by his continued success in South Florida. Bret hit the ground running at Kansas State, landing eventual three-year contributor Justin McKinney in his first year and three Florida commitments, including a really good receiver in Jermaine Moreira, in his second season in Manhattan. Florida recruits became a mainstay of Bielema's program at Wisconsin, as well. Jae McFadden, who twice led the Badgers in tackles, was a three-star recruit out of Palm Beach. Aaron Henry, a cornerback from Immolakee, started for more than two seasons and recorded 181 tackles and seven interceptions. Antonio Fenelus, a two-star recruit from Boca Raton, made 32 starts for the Badgers and is currently playing for the Colts. Kevin Claxton, from Ft. Lauderdale, made 11 starts at linebacker. Zach Brown, who was always the Badgers' third back and still managed over 1000 career rushing yards, was recruited from Palm Beach. They weren't all home runs -- Elijah Hodge (yes, Abdul's brother) and Xavier Harris transferred out relatively quickly, and just under half of Bielema's recruits didn't pan out -- but his success rate with both solid three-star types and two-star projects was significantly higher than Iowa's. Phil Parker and Rick Kaczenski had neither the connections nor the eye to identify and land the sort of second-tier talent that Bielema found and Ferentz developed.
The second factor has been the rise of second-tier Florida programs. The apex of Iowa's recruiting in Florida came in 2000-2001. At that time, South Florida was a four-year-old program that had just graduated to I-A football and was planning on joining Conference USA. Central Florida had only stepped up to I-A in 1996, was playing without a conference or any television exposure, and had acted as a sacrificial lamb to the likes of Purdue and Auburn. Florida Atlantic didn't even begin playing football until 2001, Florida International in 2002. If a player wasn't being recruited by Florida, Florida State, or Miami, there were no options for playing BCS-level college football without leaving the state. Since then, USF has become a bona fide mid-level powerhouse, rising as high as #2 in the polls. Central Florida has become a bellwether program of Conference USA. Florida International played two bowl games in 2010 and 2011 and won a Sun Belt title in 2011. FAU is opening a new stadium next season. Players no longer need to come to snowy Iowa to play on the big stage, and many don't. Those that do come north frequently end up back in Florida. Homesickness has been an issue since the dawn of time, but the presence of Florida-based programs like USF and FIU leave the door open to return home, and many players take that option.
The biggest issue may be something that Ferentz hit on in the quote above: Iowa just doesn't have any connections into Florida right now. Bielema built long-standing relationships in South Florida while recruiting the region for Hayden Fry and Ferentz, relationships he has used to build his program at Wisconsin (and has used already to land one of the best running backs in the country out of South Florida at Arkansas). Phil Parker recruited the Tampa-St. Pete area after Bielema left, but the rise of USF hits particularly hard in that area. And much like he did with almost every defensive lineman he coached from more than 500 miles away, Kaczenski apparently found only Florida recruits that would transfer out.
The Omaha World-Herald ran an excellent post last week on changes in Nebraska's recruiting strategy since Tom Osborne left the program. The essential premise was that Osborne focused on recruits within a 500-mile radius of Lincoln. Players from outside the 500-mile circle were more costly to recruit, less likely to sign, and more likely to get homesick and leave for a program closer to home. Sure, Nebraska went to California and Florida for skill position talent -- Tommie Frazier was from Florida -- but a 50% success rate there was survivable so long as the local recruits stayed home and in the program. Bill Callahan and Bo Pelini have paid lip service to Osborne's 500-mile circle, but Nebraska's recruiting has become increasingly reliant on talent from Texas and California; the Huskers had just one in-state commitment in 2013. And, with a reliance on outside recruits has come an increased attrition rate, increased number of recruits who finish but never contribute, and increased recruiting costs. Nebraska is now paying more for less than they did when they focused on the homefront.
Iowa has suffered massive attrition in recent years. Over half of the 2008 recruiting class left school early, a kiss of death for a program like Iowa's that demands its players develop for 2-3 years before becoming contributors. But 9 of 13 recruits in the 2008 class from within the Big Ten footprint finished four years in the program; only 4 of 12 from outside the Big Ten states made it. Of this year's seniors, just three -- Jack Swanson, Casey McMillan, and Jonathan Gimm -- held a scholarship offer from Iowa on their Signing Day and played high school football outside Big Ten country. Those three players had zero starts at Iowa.
Nine of 14 recruits in the Class of 2009 from inside the Big Ten states are still in the program or completed four seasons with the team before leaving. Just one of five recruits from outside the area is still here. Eleven of 14 in-footprint recruits in the Class of 2010 remain in the program; just 3 of 7 from outside remain. Of the incoming senior class of 20 players, just four -- Don Shumpert and Christian Kirksey out of St. Louis, Nolan MacMillan from Canada by way of New Jersey, and JUCO transfer Cody Sokol -- are from outside the Big Ten footprint. Of the three recruiting classes largely making up the depth chart during Iowa's worst season in a decade, 71% of recruits drawn from inside the Big Ten footprint remained in the program, while just 33% of those outside that footprint stayed. And as bad as those numbers are, the numbers out of Florida detailed before are even worse.
Iowa needs to have its talons into one of the big talent states, to be sure; relying solely on second- and third-tier Ohio talent and local players, without help from big Illinois classes or players from outside the Big Ten states, is how you end up in the trouble where Iowa now finds itself, and Ferentz's move into Texas' gargantuan talent pool is wise (we'll get to this next week). But Iowa also needs players who will stay in the program and develop into contributors. For a variety of reasons, those players are now overwhelmingly coming from Iowa's neighborhood. The Hawkeyes' Florida recruiting has long since ceased being fruitful, and recruiting that state without connections is not just costly. It's not just unnecessary. It's the ultimate source of Iowa's attrition issue, and the staff's newfound focus on the players it can get and keep is the smartest move it has made this winter.