The 2021 college football recruiting cycle was perhaps one of the wildest on record. While some prospects were able to take unofficial visits as college juniors, by and large the class of 2021 was forced to make one of the biggest decisions of their lives without stepping foot on college campuses as high school seniors.
For a program like Iowa, that should have been a nearly insurmountable challenge. The Hawkeyes have no doubt had on-field success, but the program is not and never will be a blueblood. It has a reputation for churning out NFL draft picks at a handful of positions, but that’s typically not enough to attract high end talent when head-to-head with those bluebloods who have also produced NFL talent.
The thing that always seems to seal the deal, is actually getting prospects on campus. Bringing a high school junior or senior to Iowa City to see it’s not the cornfield you see on TV, but a vibrant college town with a tremendous gameday atmosphere opens the door for a lot of prospects who might otherwise choose to go elsewhere.
Without the ability to get those kids on campus in 2020 should have meant a major drop off in talent for the Hawkeyes because they weren’t able to get those all important on campus visits. But it didn’t. In fact, the class of 2021 was the best in more than 15 years for head coach Kirk Ferentz and the second best ever in his 22 seasons in Iowa City.
How? The local talent saved the day as the Hawkeyes inked 11 recruits from within the state’s borders and 17 out of a total 19 commits came from Iowa or a border state. It wasn’t just the quantity, but also the quality as a pair of Iowa’s in-state products were of the 4-star variety according to Rivals and a full 32% of the class donned the fourth star.
That’s part of a larger trend in the state of Iowa that could pay major dividends for the Hawkeyes if they can continue to lock down the borders as they have in recent years. The class of 2021 in the state of Iowa* included five 4-star athletes according to Rivals. That’s more than the four classes from 2017-2020 combined.
Looking ahead to 2022, the trend continues. Iowa has a trio of 4-stars and a fourth who’s already committed to Notre Dame. In 2023, despite rankings not being complete, the state already has a pair of top-100 kids in the nation who are 4-star prospects. That includes the nation’s top-rated offensive tackle in Kadyn Proctor of Southeast Polk.
Nothing is a given, and the upward trajectory in Ames is likely to put a dent in things, but Iowa has tended to secure about half of the 4-star and higher talent from within the state in any given year. Given that the classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023 are set to produce as much such talent as the previous decade combined (in terms of Rivals 4-star prospects), expect more recruiting classes to look like 2021 than 2016.
Last look at my Player Development metric for 2020 -- 2021 numbers coming soon— Pick Six Previews (@PickSixPreviews) April 28, 2021
NFL Draft production ahead of expectation from raw recruiting ranks
1 Utah (2nd in a row)
3 Boston College
5 NC State
Hawkeye fans will be the first to tell you that you don’t need to have a bunch of stars behind your name to be successful at the power five or NFL level and Kirk Ferentz has made Iowa known for finding and developing those under-recruited prospects. But for as great as the stories of guys like Bob Sanders and Robert Gallery are, watching players such as AJ Epenesa and Tristan Wirfs is equally enjoyable and their talents are certainly tremendous.
The rankings are often wrong from player to player (see above), but in aggregate they tend to be right. The hit rate on higher ranked prospects is very high and it’s no secret why the top programs seek out higher rated players and succeed in placing them in the NFL.
You don’t need an advanced degree in mathematics to know that you have a better chance at winning games if you have a roster with better players. Recruiting rankings are one indicator of who the better players are at a point in time. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, it seems the state of Iowa is continuing to produce more of those better players. Now it’s up to Kirk Ferentz and his staff to capitalize.
*Note that due to COVID-19, the 2021 class for Iowa includes several prospects who transferred to high schools within the state to be able to compete during their senior seasons. That includes the likes of 4-star prospects like Arland Bruce IV and Jake Rubley.