Recruiting is the lifeblood of college football. It’s a simple fact of life in this day and age. Coaching can do a lot, but great players can mask terrible coaching and bad players can get a great coach fired.
Recruiting also has a bit of a self-fulfilling aspect to it. The best teams are the ones with the best players. The best players, in turn, go to the best teams. Rinse, repeat. Every now and then, a team can catch lightening in a bottle and reel in just enough of the right guys to become a great team and thus begin to attract the great players.
For two decades, Kirk Ferentz has worked to catch his lightening. We all know that Ferentz doesn’t view Iowa as sexy. That’s in part the inherent nature of being the 31st state by population (2010 data) with an economy built on agriculture. But it’s also part by the design of Kirk’s approach to football.
The Hawkeyes are built on winning at the line of scrimmage, bend don’t break defense and out-executing opponents. That doesn’t exactly reach off the page and grab high school juniors’ attention the same way a spread offense or turnover chains might. That’s football.
But when the KF way of life is paired with the right mixture of players buying into the system and pure talent, the results can be tremendous. In rare cases, they’re even sexy.
More often than not over the last 20 years, Iowa has found itself hovering somewhere in the mid-50s in the national recruiting team rankings. You don’t need to be a genius to discern that mid-50s talent is going to take some work to churn out top-25 results on the field. The Hawkeyes have been one of the best in the nation at doing just that - outworking everyone to develop 2- and 3-star players into NFL prospects who keep the team around the top-25 rather than the mid-50s in the national polls.
On a few rare occasions, however, we’ve seen it all come together for Iowa to attract a top-25 recruiting class. The results have been mixed.
In 2005, Iowa hauled in its best recruiting class of the Kirk Ferentz era. With 23 total prospects, it was ranked 11th by Rivals and 6th according to what was at the time Scout (now 247 Sports). That was good enough for second in the Big Ten behind only Michigan (Nebraska was also top-10, but still in the Big 12 at the time).
It was a star-studded group headlined by a group of prospects from the Land of Lincoln. Dan Doering and Dace Richardson were both 5-star offensive linemen and Tony Moeaki was a 5-star tight end. The class also included a 4-star quarterback in Jake Christensen, as well as 4-star wide receiver Trey Stross, 4-star running back (OK fullback) Kalvin Bailey as well as 4-star offensive lineman Raphael Eubanks and 4-star defensive tackles Ryan Bain and Alex Kanellis. It was an embarrassment of riches.
Beyond the names with the recruiting stars, the group included prospects who would go on to become actual stars. There was 3-star running back Shonn Greene, who would win the Doak Walker Award. There was 3-star offensive lineman Marhal Yanda who has gone on to 8 Pro Bowls. There was 3-star linebacker Pat Angerer who went on to become a First Team All-American.
Despite all the talent, the group came to Iowa City and struggled to produce for the first couple seasons. In 2006, after the redshirt season for most recruits, Iowa had one of just two losing seasons since Kirk Ferentz officially righted the ship in 2001. In 2007, they were perhaps saved the same fate by not making a bowl game at 6-6.
It was in 2008, when several of the highly-touted recruits were out of the program and some of the lesser known prospects stepped into the spotlight that we saw some of the best success in Ferentz’s tenure. That was the year Greene took home the Doak Walker as Iowa went 9-4.
The following season, we witnessed one of Iowa’s great runs. The team finished 11-2 with an Orange Bowl win, despite Greene leaving early for the NFL Draft. That team, you’ll recall, was led largely by players from the 2006 class, not the highly regarded 2005 group. Ricky Stanzi was the vocal leader with DJK and Marvin McNutt the pass catchers and Adrian Clayborn got the praise on the defense. But it was still Tony Moeaki manning the tight end ship. It was still Pat Angerer flying all over the defense.
It’s incredible to think we’re now 16 years removed from that group and despite catching the proverbial lightning in the bottle on the recruiting trail that year, the average class ranking has remained in the mid- to upper-40s ever since.
It has trended into the 30s the last few classes. Now, Iowa’s recruiting class of 2021 is poised to rival that of 2005. Will this group be the one to produce Iowa’s next Doak Walker Award winner? Will they have the Hawkeyes within reach of a Big Ten Title? Will 2021 be the chance to buck the trend and make Iowa be a destination for the best players? Or will it be a flash in the pan? Time will tell.