The Iowa Hawkeyes had a roller coaster of a ride in the recruiting class of 2021 heading into the early signing period back in December. Iowa went into the COVID-19 pandemic on a hot streak, picking up a slew of commitments early on. But things ground to a virtual halt as the pandemic took hold around the same time as allegations of racial injustice within the program were brought forward.
Since that time, the Hawkeye staff was unable to bring prospective athletes on campus for visits - official or unofficial - involving program personnel. For a coaching staff that has built their recruiting process around convincing players to take a visit to fall in love with Iowa, that’s been a substantial hurdle.
Despite the challenges, Iowa came out of the early signing period with 17 total commitments and the highest rated recruiting class for the Hawkeyes in more than a decade. Now, with the final signing day quickly approaching, we’re taking a look at Iowa’s remaining needs and top targets.
Early Signing Day Refresher
We’re now nearly a month out from the early signing period back in December, so it’s worth a quick refresher on how things finished. Iowa signed 17 commitments in the class of 2021. Here’s a breakdown of those commitments by position.
Iowa signed Ohio 3-star QB Joey Labas in December. The Broadview Heights product broke the seal for the Hawkeyes as their first commitment following the turmoil that surfaced early in the summer. Labas has a prototypical frame for an Iowa QB while also demonstrating a bit more escapability than Iowa’s current signal-caller.
The Hawkeyes did not sign a back in the early period.
The Iowa staff seems to have found a recipe they liked with the receiving group they had the last two seasons. Kelton Copeland and Brian Ferentz went out and replicated it in the class of 2021.
Nebraska legacy Keagan Johnson is an Ihmir Smith-Marsette clone, but comes in more heralded with a shiny 4-star rating. He’s joined by a pair of Ankeny prep stars win Arland Bruce IV, who moved to Iowa this year from Kansas due to COVID-19. Like current Iowa receiver Tyrone Tracy, Bruce spent most of his time as a prep as a running back, but has the breakaway speed and slighter build to fit in well at receiver. His transfer to Ankeny was aided by fellow Hawkeye Brody Brecht, who shares a lot of similarities with departing receiver Brandon Smith.
Iowa did not sign a tight end during the early period.
Iowa’s offensive line class of 2021 is one of the best the Hawkeyes have landed in recent memory. Things started with an underrated commitment from Gennings Dunker, a native of Lena, Illinois, who has a great frame at 6’5” and 290 pounds and the kind of work ethic and mean streak we’ve seen a few million times before in Iowa City.
Dunker is the only 3-star in the group as Cedar Rapids native Connor Colby, Blue Springs, Missouri native Beau Stephens and Winnetka, Illinois native David Davidkov all come to Iowa boasting 4-star ratings. The group is full of potential stars who all look great in pass protection and feed on pancakes in the run game.
The Hawkeyes signed four defensive linemen in the early period, three of which hail from within the state’s borders. Defensive tackle Griffin Liddle is a Bettendorf product who comes in with 3-stars. He’s joined by Jeff Bowie, a West Branch defensive end, and Max Llewellyn, who’s also a 3-star defensive end from Urbandale. The lone commit not from Iowa in this group is Illinois native Jeremiah Pittman, who brings his 3-stars from Arlington Heights, Illinois.
In a change from recent recruiting classes, Iowa signed four linebackers in the early period. The group is headlined by Minnesota 4-star Justice Sullivan, who has the speed and athleticism to be a playmaker at linebacker or perhaps on the defensive line.
Sullivan is joined by Urbandale 3-star Jaden Harrell, Iowa Falls 2/3-star Karson Sharar, who was a late offer, and Story City 3-star Zach Twedt. Twedt is a bit of an interesting one. The former Iowa State commit has some position versatility with his 6’3” 225 pound frame and solid athleticism. It’s not impossible to see him flip to the other side of the ball and get a shot at tight end.
Iowa signed just one defensive back during the early period, but he may be the star of the class. Ida Grove athlete Cooper DeJean was named the adidas National Player of the Year and was selected for the All-American Bowl (which was not played due to the pandemic).
While DeJean is expected to start at safety when he arrives in Iowa City, his offensive numbers are what earned him the national attention. They’re staggering (more than 4,500 yards and 62 touchdowns) and make you wonder if he won’t find himself on offense at some point.
The Hawkeyes were set to lose 17 scholarship players to graduation this season. That number has shifted a bit as we learned that wide receiver Max Cooper and defensive end Zach VanValkenburg intend to return for an extra year given the additional availability the NCAA is affording everyone. Those two returnees are offset a bit by the early departure of superstar defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. Iowa also had a handful of transfers during the season (it’s worth noting that the raw numbers involved are actually low relative to Big Ten peers) leaving the Hawkeyes with 23 open scholarships to fill in the class of 2021.
As noted above, Iowa signed 17 in the early period, meaning the Hawkeyes came into January with 6 open spots. One of those was filled earlier this month when Northern Iowa defensive back Xavior Williams announced he was transferring to Iowa. So, heading into the late period, Iowa has five open spots they could fill with some combination of class of 2021 commits, transfers or scholarships to walk-ons.
Where should those be used? The biggest immediate need appears to be at defensive tackle as Iowa tries to replace the departing Nixon. That hole won’t be filled by an incoming freshman so it’s unlikely we see the staff focus on a class of 2021 commit there.
More likely is a focus on building for the future at defensive back. With Indianapolis native DJ Johnson and Julius Brents, as well as Daraun McKinney, all leaving the program, Iowa needs to re-stock the shelves.
Running back is the other spot that could really use another commit. With starter Tyler Goodson back for his junior season, Iowa doesn’t have a lot of early playing time to offer, but with Mekhi Sargent graduating and Shadrick Byrd transferring earlier in the year, some depth is needed.
Names to Watch
That hole on the running back depth chart may be the first to get filled. Iowa has extended a few late offers to prospects at the position and we could see some real movement as soon as this weekend in that department.
That’s because Arizona native Eli Sanders is slated to fly to Iowa for visits to his top two choices, Iowa State and Iowa, before making his decision on Sunday.
Commitment coming this Sunday January 17th!!— Eli Sanders (@Elisanders62) January 13, 2021
Sanders is an explosive back with breakaway speed to go with a good frame at 6’ and 190 pounds. In his senior season at Chandler HS, the former Boise State commit racked up 1,377 yards and 23 TDs while averaging 7.5 yards per carry.
He’s dynamic and would make an excellent heir apparent to Tyler Goodson of Iowa can reel him in. Having 2022 receiver commits Brody Brecht and Armand Bruce in town to show him campus certainly won’t hurt.
While Sanders is looking to decide soon, Iowa has also put in place some contingency plans. The Hawkeye staff offered Philadelphia, Mississippi running back Jarquez Hunter on Tuesday.
Despite hailing from a different part of the country, Hunter has a lot of similarities to Sanders. He has a great frame at 5’10” and 200 pounds and boasts game breaking speed in the open field. As a senior at Neshoba Central, Hunter totaled a staggering 1,687 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns.
Hunter may be difficult to get out of the south, particularly in a year where recruits aren’t able to take official visits. In addition to Iowa’s offer, Auburn joined the party this week, perhaps making the Hawkeyes’ chances even slimmer.
Despite the outcomes of these two backs in particular, it’s clear there are high quality athletes still available and the staff has found a prototype they like at the position.
That’s equally true at the center position. Tyler Linderbaum has broken the mold after moving over from defensive tackle and it’s clear the Iowa staff would like to replicate him as much as humanly possible for the foreseeable future. It just so happens a Linderbaum clone the Hawkeyes had recruited heavily early on in the cycle is back on the market.
While Iowa doesn’t need another offensive lineman in this class, former Texas commit Michael Myslinksi of Florida is too good to pass up. He’s rated a 3-star but his film has 4-star written all over it.
Myslinski looks like a man among boys, dominating defensive linemen. He explodes off the line and drives through defenders regularly while also showing the athleticism to pull or get out in space in the screen game. He’s not huge at 6’3 and 290 pounds, but that’s a very good frame for a center and the kind of build that could be ready to see the field in the Big Ten in a year.
Speaking of looking to see the field soon, Iowa could use some help at defensive tackle this year after losing Daviyon Nixon to the NFL this offseason. As noted above, look for the Hawkeyes to fill that hole through the transfer portal, much as they did with Jack Heflin a year ago.
Perhaps Iowa will look to do it exactly as they did with Heflin as yet another Northern Illinois defensive tackle has hit the transfer portal. Weston Kramer, a former 2-star prospect from Naperville, entered his name in the portal on Tuesday.
That announcement was retweeted by former teammate and now former Hawkeye Heflin. Soon after, Iowa defensive line coach Kelvin Bell started following Kramer.
Its still early goings, but Kramer looks like another potential stopgap for the Hawkeyes in the middle. He graded out as NIU’s top defensive player in 2020 per Pro Football Focus and would certainly fill a need.
The last name to mention is on the other end of the spectrum. Under defensive coordinator Phil Parker, the Iowa defense has been tremendous and the defensive backs have always seemed to work out. With just the aforementioned Cooper DeJean currently in the fold, expect Iowa to try to grab at least one more DB in this class. That may well be the annual Parker Special. Or two.
For now, the only name openly on the radar is Navy commit Calvin Johnson. A Mississippi native, Johnson flew a bit under the radar early in the cycle, but has seen his recruitment explode of late with offers from the likes of Florida State, Penn State and a slew of others. Including Iowa.
As with Hunter, getting Johnson out of the south may be difficult, but Iowa has some hope here. Now former Hawkeye WR Brandon Smith, also from Mississippi, is Johnson’s second cousin. That kind of connection could could help ease fears about committing to a school outside Johnson’s home region.
If it’s not Johnson who fills the need at defensive back, look for the Iowa staff to hold back on their sleeper targets until the last minute. That’s been a favorite tactic of Phil Parker and the return of Bret Bielema to the Big Ten is likely to only exacerbate that.
Whoever ultimately fills out this class of 2021, the Iowa staff will likely have their best group of talent from a rankings standpoint in more than a decade. It should be a wild ride through the final signing day.