College football recruiting is the longest of long games. Getting a player to commit to your school isn’t simply a matter of being the most enthusiastic or presenting the best opportunity. There are stakeholders throughout the transaction to appease, from the player to parents to coaches to other recruits at the same position. Bret Bielema used to pull a handful of recruits every year out of Florida, not because players from Florida dream of playing football in Madison, Wisconsin, but because he had built connections in Florida during decades of recruiting the state for Bill Snyder and Barry Alvarez (and, yes, Kirk Ferentz, too). Those coaches knew Bielema, knew that he would not treat their kids poorly, knew that he was willing to give the lesser-known recruits a fair shot. The coaches were the gatekeepers, and through them came Bielema to meet the under-the-radar players who would relish a shot at a Big Ten scholarship. Through those coaches also came the parents concerned about sending their kids 2,000 miles north.
At the end of the tenure of Ferentz’s first staff, the connections that should have grown over those twelve years were instead shrinking. Iowa had not committed itself to recruiting Texas, and its connections to the state, once the lifeblood of Hayden Fry’s resurgence, had withered and died. Florida had been left to a string of poor talent scouts following Bielema’s departure, and the sources that gave Iowa players like Bennie Sapp and C.J. Jones were more loyal to Bielema than the random assistant Ferentz had sent in his place. Iowa was essentially left to recruit the upper Midwest and exploit Darrell Wilson’s connections in New Jersey and the mid-Atlantic region. The footprint had shrunk, and the results were obvious.
One of the first moves that Ferentz made after replacing essentially his entire staff in 2011 and 2012 was to assign assistant coach LeVar Woods to Texas. Woods spent much of his first year trudging through mud with new offensive coordinator (and former Texas assistant) Greg Davis. In that first year, Iowa landed a pair of recruits out of the Lone Star State, one through Woods (wide receiver Anjeus Jones) and one through Davis (quarterback Nic Shimonek). Both were projects, and neither lasted in Iowa City. The next year brought a wide receiver (Josh Jackson) and a kicker (Mick Ellis), again both projects. But this time, they stuck.
Iowa began to break through in Texas in 2015, with four commits from Woods. More importantly, the quality was improving. Angelo Garbutt was pursued by serious programs (and Nebraska). Jerminic Smith was a ready-made wide receiver. Iowa’s near-misses that year evidenced improvement, as well, as the Hawkeyes made the final cut for a handful of four-star recruits. Last year was a significant step back, but recruiting is a long game, and the worm might have finally turned.
Excited to say I'm committing to the University of Iowa. #swarm17 #ANF #FroshBTeam pic.twitter.com/ZI7sxTXORL— Aquaman (@MansellPeyton) June 20, 2016
All this is prelude to the announcement that Iowa landed a Monday afternoon commitment from Belton, Texas quarterback Peyton Mansell. The 6’2, 195-lb. Mansell chose Iowa over offers from a bunch of lower-tier programs (his next-best offer was probably San Diego State), and he only rates as a two-star player at Rivals.
If you wonder why Iowa is leaping at a two-star quarterback from Texas, the numbers certainly help tell the story. Mansell threw for 1,712 yards and 20 touchdowns against just three interceptions as a junior, and managed to run for another 789 yards and 10 touchdowns on top of that. If you close one eye and squint with the other, his tape looks more than a little like the healthy C.J. Beathard we saw at the beginning of last season, and while that is certainly an unfair comparison this early, it’s also likely what the coaching staff saw.
Neither that comparison nor those automatically associated with his first and last names guarantees anything, of course. Mansell could go the way of Shimonek and leave after a season or two. He could find himself buried on a depth chart full of three-star quarterbacks competing for his snaps. He might not even be the only quarterback Iowa takes in this class. Someday, we might look back at this and wonder why Iowa was so early to offer a two-star quarterback whose best offers were from the Ivy League. It happens. It’s recruiting.
But at this moment, with Iowa netting a four-star halfback and two-star quarterback out of Texas, and potentially more on the way, Peyton Mansell is yet another sign that Iowa is winning the long game. In the doldrums of June, that’s more than enough to justify some positivity.