The last year or so has been quite a roller-coaster ride for those of us who follow Iowa Football recruiting closer than we probably should. This time a year ago, things were really picking up for the class of 2017. The Hawkeyes were fresh off an undefeated regular season, a Big Ten Championship appearance and a trip to the Rose Bowl. That success was spilling over onto the recruiting trail.
We saw a slew of highly sought after kids from Texas pledge to Iowa, including some really contagious personalities who helped keep the momentum going. We saw a 5-star (for those of you who don’t care about stars, you have to admit getting a 5-star is preferable to not getting one, all else equal) commit for the first time since Dan Doering signed with Iowa in 2005. The class was ranked in the top 20 nationally and looked to be on par with the greatest recruiting classes of the Kirk Ferentz era.
And then things started to unravel. We had the Eno Benjamin situation, which preceded the so-called Texodus, and ultimately we saw the class of 2017 come in around 40th in the country depending on your ranking service of choice. At the end of the day, the jury is still out on exactly how good the class will be, but it is a pretty solid class by Iowa standards, regardless of the departures, and I think there are some real gems in this class (AJ Epenesa obviously seems like a can’t miss, but I’m going to keep banging the Brandon Smith drum until I’m proven wrong, and maybe even beyond). But the journey from last April to this February was one that raised some questions for the people who tend to care more about recruiting.
There’s been some buzz of late on the recruiting front after new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz made some interesting comments about how Iowa views a scholarship offer and some not-so-veiled shots at some of the newer staffs at rivals in Ames and Minneapolis. But largely, those questions about the process and what’s gone wrong (or right) went unanswered as we moved through the football season, into basketball season and now have quietly transitioned into the summer (and baseball’s push to the NCAA Tournament!).
Last week those questions resurfaced when a 3-star hybrid WR/TE out of Miami announced his commitment to the Hawkeyes. And then quickly retracted that commitment and indicated he had been told by the staff they’d like him to hold his commitment until after he visited Iowa City.
Ivan Thomas told me he didn't know he needed to visit 1st before committing. Was comfortable with what he researched on Hawkeyes & school.— Rob Howe (@RobHoweHN) May 26, 2017
So, with that backdrop I think now is as good a time as any to dive into exactly how Iowa approaches recruiting a player of interest, how the recruiting landscape drives some of that approach, and the world we live in going forward.
Let’s start with the wide lens and then focus in on Iowa specifically. Recruiting is a strange game. It’s an inexact science, and if we’ve learned anything over the Kirk Ferentz years, it’s that you don’t have to consistently bring in a slew of 5-star kids to win football games. We’ve also seen that having a slew of those 5-star kids can hide a lot of issues from a scheme and execution standpoint.
And increasingly, coaching staffs are willing to push the envelope to get their hands on that talent. Whether that means signing 25+ kids every. single. year. only to tell several there isn’t room for them on a regular basis, or doing their best to skirt NCAA rules on everything from contact limits to money to parents/handlers, people are doing whatever it takes to land the next big thing. And if you can’t land the next big thing, some staffs have decided to just try and offer every kid with a pulse and see if something sticks.
We’ll get into how that approach differs from Iowa, but let’s think for a minute about how that type of environment might skew potential recruits’ view of the recruiting game. Imagine you’re a football prospect from a place like Florida. You’re a good football player in a state full of good to great football players. You’ve spent your whole life preparing to get a D-1 scholarship offer and hopefully pursue your dream of going to the NFL.
Now, you’re only a sophomore in high school, but you’re getting “noticed” by some schools. They aren’t formally reaching out, but maybe your coach is hearing from them or you’re starting to notice some coaches following you on Twitter or Instagram, or whatever your favorite social media platform may be. It feels pretty cool to be noticed for your work. You start going to some camps and by the time your junior year rolls around, you start to receive scholarship offers. And not just one or two — it seems like they’re being handed out like candy. At first it’s the mid-majors. A group of teams from the MAC offer, and maybe Conference USA. Then you start to see some of the bigger guys come calling. Iowa State, of course, throws out an offer without ever seeing you. So does Minnesota. And apparently Indiana, Rutgers, Syracuse, Louisville and a slew of other schools who are varying degrees of good at D-1 football.
It feels pretty good. And pretty soon it feels like if you haven’t gotten an offer from someone, maybe they aren’t really interested in you? I mean, most of these schools are extending the offer without coming to see you in person or getting you in for a visit first. And really, if you have to pay for your own travel, are you making the trip up to Ames, Iowa if you aren’t sure how interested they are in you? Hell, I live in the state and I’m not traveling to Ames for anything other than an Iowa game. So no, you’re probably not.
And that brings us to the problem Iowa faces with recruits and how we see a situation like we did last week with Ivan Thomas. Kids want an offer. They need an offer to feel wanted. If they don’t get it, they start to question whether they are truly being recruited or just slow-played. Or worse: if a coaching staff puts in the time, money and energy to go visit a kid to watch a workout or a game and walks away without making an offer, the recruit feels slighted and unwanted. They’re ready to cross that school off the list and move on. So a school like Iowa is forced to extend an offer to a guy from Florida who hasn’t been to campus yet. The thought is that kid will be more likely to at least consider a 20-hour drive or spend the money on a flight for a visit if he knows you’re interested enough to offer a scholarship.
But at this point, I think we are all pretty aware of Iowa’s thoughts on scholarship offers and commitments. An offer is a “marriage proposal” and a commitment is the marriage. Once you’ve committed, you aren’t supposed to be going on dates with other potential suitors. They might call, but you better be pressing the ignore button or maybe we should look at a divorce.
As much as I’ve been openly frustrated at the loss of a guy like Eno Benjamin, I get the premise for the no visit policy. I’m a married man and I know how I would feel if my wife suddenly started going on dates with other guys, whether she told me first or not. And if we accept the premise of the offer being like a proposal, it’s pretty unreal to consider making a proposal without meeting the person or having them ever come to your place to see how you’re living or what it would be like to be with you 24/7. You wouldn’t do that with a marriage proposal.
So given Iowa’s philosophy on offers and commitments, the whole process makes quite a bit of sense. You evaluate kids tape from high school (maybe you’re perusing an online dating profile or swiping left/right?) and make a short list of the ones that look good enough to warrant a closer look. Some of them might look good enough to offer on the tape alone, but you probably want to know more than just how good they are at football before you make an offer. You wouldn’t propose to someone based on their online profile alone, after all.
So you start making some calls. You introduce yourself to the recruit, get to know them. You talk to their coaches and family to learn more about their abilities as well as their personalities and how they might fit the culture. Sometimes you meet someone great but it just wouldn’t work out from a chemistry perspective. Best to get that resolved before you’re standing at the altar alone or filing divorce papers in a couple years.
And that brings us eye to eye with the Thomas situation. You’ve gone through the process of identifying a kid you like. You talked to his family, his coaches and he’s a kid you think you’d like to have come to Iowa. But you want him to be sure as well. So you want him to visit Iowa City before anything is set in stone, or at least before the save the dates go out. But you’re in this weird situation where your view of a proposal and marriage applies to the commitment, but the recruit doesn’t really think you’re interested unless you’ve made an offer. And he sure as hell isn’t spending the time or money out of his own pocket to travel to what he imagines to be some corn fields if there isn’t a scholarship offer on the table.
So you extend one. And to everyone’s delight, the kid accepts. The bride-to-be says yes without meeting your parents or coming over to your place for the weekend. Normally, there’d be time to pump the breaks and get her to come over first, but now the recruit has made a public announcement without first coming to you. The optics aren’t good, but I can get there.
Now let’s be serious, if we are really talking proposals you’re not making the offer at this point to begin with, but again, we’re in a recruiting world where your hand is forced to an extent. Is a kid from Miami coming up to Iowa City for a visit without the assurance there is a spot for him? Probably not. This situation looks bad, but at the end of the day, the staff still wants the kid and the fact he was excited enough to commit site unseen should be a good sign going forward. One of the major hurdles for Iowa is getting kids on campus. Once they are here, it’s hard not to fall in love.
Another pretty obvious difference between a scholarship offer and a marriage proposal is you would never make a marriage proposal to six different people with one ring in your pocket. And if you did, all six are telling you to take a hike. Not the case in recruiting. The kid isn’t taking the first date without an offer. And Iowa isn’t putting a ring on it, even if they’ve offered, unless the recruit has come up for that first date.
It truly is a strange world. And at the end of the day, not many brides are getting proposals from 20+ suitors and then posting videos to YouTube of them ditching all but their eventual partner.
So do I think the proposal and marriage metaphor is perfect? Absolutely not. Do I think there are major headwinds facing the Iowa staff in the ever-changing world of recruiting? Absolutely. Getting a kid from Miami to venture up to Iowa City is tough. Other schools are offering kids left and right. They’re pushing the envelope and making a ton of investment in social media presences to make these kids feel wanted, even needed. It’s difficult to compete in that battle when your philosophy on evaluating talent, making offers and the character of kids you want on your roster is fundamentally different from some of these schools.
The question now is whether that philosophy is right or wrong. I think the last 18 years are enough of a track record to show us the philosophy has been right. Iowa has tended to value things like character, culture fit and work ethic more than a lot of our rivals. Sometimes that has come at the expense of athleticism. This staff’s ability to turn a 2-star kid into a mainstay in the NFL is second to none. And I don’t think that will change, nor do I want it to. But can they continue that approach while also adapting to some of the changing landscape?
I hope so. Guys like Matt Campbell and PJ Fleck come off as a complete joke to most of us over the age of 25. It’s pretty obvious their offers mean little and their coaching resume is about as long as mine. But the mindset of 17-year-old athletes seems to be interested in flashy things like graphics, edits and hashtags. Iowa can continue their tradition of developing under-recruited guys without putting much effort into such things. But getting to another level of recruiting will take some compromise.
“I think he’s available if they send him messages on Twitter. I think he’s available if they text him, and he’s available if they call. He’s often initiating contact.
And Kirk Ferentz doesn’t have Twitter.
It’s not just part of your scheduled visit where some head coaches, you visit and you get 45 minutes with the head man,. With P.J., you’ll see him all day, the whole time, in and out, 30 minutes here, 45 minutes there. Maybe he is the one driving you around campus on your tour.”
I think we’re seeing the staff come to that realization. I don’t expect to see Kirk Ferentz on Twitter in my lifetime (if he’s entering the social media world I think we can all agree it’ll either be MySpace or Facebook), but basically everyone not named Kirk or Phil Parker is out there. And the effort we see on the recruiting trail is seriously promising. As much as the Ivan Thomas situation looked like an issue on first glance, the fact that Kelton Copeland, a guy who’s been on the job at Iowa a few months, was able to walk into a kid’s home in Miami, Florida and get him to commit to the Hawkeyes without even making it to Iowa City should give us all a lot of hope. That’s not an easy sell by any stretch of the imagination. And I’m willing to chalk up the miscommunication to that new-ness.
I don’t want to see Iowa become Iowa State. I would be somewhat ashamed if I hopped onto the interwebz one day to find the Hawkeyes had offered 400 kids in one class. But seeing them more involved on social media and making offers to kids who they sincerely want as Hawkeyes is something we need more of. Guys like Kelton Copeland, LeVar Woods, Kelvin Bell and Seth Wallace are pushing us in that direction. And where the right balance is remains to be seen. I like where we’re headed, even if it isn’t a chapel.
As we get further into the summer months, not only do we have less going on in terms of sporting events, but we get into the heart of recruiting season. Unofficial visits get started in June and camps will be taking place all summer. Those are prime opportunities for offers and commitments. We’ll try to stay on the right side of creepily caring, but if you’d like to have more recruiting coverage, let us know. This is the time of year for it and we’re here to serve you.