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Does Iowa Football Have a Recruiting Problem?

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Iowa’s 2021 recruiting class was excellent, but several factors are causing its 2022 class to lag behind.

Wisconsin v Iowa Photo by Matthew Holst/Getty Images

Iowa football recruiting director Tyler Barnes is an active presence on social media and is usually beaming with positivity about the football players looking to continue their athletic careers at the University of Iowa. However, on July 1, less than one week removed from Iowa’s big summer recruiting weekend in which it hosted several of its top prospects for the class of 2022, Barnes took to Twitter to vent about the recent uptick in negative recruiting targeted towards the Hawkeye football program of late.

While it’s impossible to know what school irked Barnes enough to publicly air his frustration (cough* Auburn* cough*), a glance at Iowa’s 2022 recruiting class makes it easy to see the cause of his growing concern. The Hawkeyes currently have seven commitments in the class of 2022 (eight if you count preferred walk-on kicker Drew Stevens) and a recruiting class ranked 63rd in the nation, putting them one spot above Central Michigan and behind seven group of five schools and a Vanderbilt team that finished 0-9 last season. Iowa’s class is ranked dead last in the Big Ten and is tied for the fewest number of commitments in the conference. Rutgers, a team that has not been to a bowl game since 2014, has twice as many commitments in its 2022 recruiting class as Iowa, a team that has not won fewer than eight games since that very season. Ohio State and Penn State have more four-star commitments (11 and 10, respectively) than Iowa has total commitments. If Iowa really is being targeted by negative recruiting, the efforts appear to be working.

Few positions speak more to Iowa’s current recruiting struggles than those of running back, tight end, and defensive back. The Hawkeyes should have no trouble recruiting these three positions; Iowa’s running backs have long been the focal point of the offense, while the program has a clear track record of producing college and NFL stars at tight end and defensive back. Yet the Hawkeyes have come up short at all of these positions, being shut out by most of its top running back targets, passed over by tight end recruits like Eli Raridon, Micah Riley-Ducker, and Andrew Keller, and seemingly falling behind in the pursuit of defensive backs like Iowa native Xavier Nwankpa. Losing out a few days ago on Riley-Ducker, a lifelong Hawkeye fan, to Auburn, a school with little recent history of excellence at tight end, was particularly frustrating.

To analyze the state of Iowa’s recruiting, this article will attempt to answer three questions: what is the cause of Iowa’s recruiting woes, how much do these struggles matter, and does Iowa still have time to solve this problem?

The Cause:

Barnes identified negative recruiting as a major plague on the Hawkeye program, but for such tactics to work, recruits must have at least some reasons to believe the slights being thrown Iowa’s way. Iowa’s on-field record the past few seasons should be enough to sell recruits on a stable and successful program, but other factors could very well be undercutting the team’s recruiting pitch.

The biggest stain on the program’s reputation is the lingering allegation of racial disparity. While Iowa’s players have been overwhelmingly positive about the coaching staff’s response to complaints of longstanding racial bias, it is easy to imagine parents and high school coaches being weary of recommending Iowa to their young student athletes. This is particularly true for out-of-state prospects who may not have closely followed the positive aftermath of last summer’s racial reckoning and only been exposed to negative headlines about fired strength coaches and lawsuits from former black players. Many were optimistic that Iowa’s strong play last season would help the team put this chapter behind it, but there is reason to suspect that recruits have longer memories than the program might have hoped.

Iowa’s racial disparity allegations happen to mix well with another negative recruiting staple that has long followed the Hawkeye program: the claim that Kirk Ferentz is headed for the exit. Any 65-year old coach would have to deal with rumors of his imminent retirement, but when his son and perceived successor was featured prominently in allegations of systemic racism within the program, the prospect of Kirk’s departure becomes particularly worrisome. Even if recruits do believe that Iowa has righted the ship under Kirk’s leadership, one can imagine opposing coaches whispering in their ears that this progress will be rolled back once Brian inevitably takes over in a few years.

It is also possible that Iowa’s struggles have less to do with negative recruiting and more to do with the failures of the staff to adapt to the changing circumstances of the past year. Did the coaching staff fail to properly adapt to last summer’s COVID recruiting dead period or their inability to bring recruits to home games last season? Did other programs ramp up faster and more effectively once recruiting roared back to normal? Did the staff fail to outline how they would empower recruits to capitalize on their name/image/likeness once the now-vacated restrictions on monetizing them were lifted by the NCAA? Fans are unlikely to learn the answers to these questions, but deficiencies in any of these areas could be behind Iowa’s lackluster recruiting efforts thus far.

Finally, Iowa may also be suffering from no longer being the only show in town in its home state. Iowa State’s rise has created the first real in-state competition Iowa has had in two decades, and the Cyclones have shown themselves capable of out-competing Iowa for regional talent. The Cyclones have won five recruiting battles against Iowa in the class of 2022 (including Saturday’s commitment of four-star defensive tackle Hunter Deyo), while the Hawkeyes have secured only one commitment from a recruit that was also offered by ISU (Wisconsin offensive tackle Jack Dotzler). Iowa’s small population means it lacks the natural recruiting advantage of its rivals, meaning it must dominate in-state recruiting and win a few key out-of-state battles to round out a strong recruiting class. Iowa State doesn’t need to beat the Hawkeyes for every recruit, but if they can poach away even half of the top in-state prospects, Iowa’s recruiting will suffer tremendously.

Why It Matters:

Iowa’s poor recruiting ranking is not a slight on the players who have committed to the program; four-star DE Aaron Graves looks like a future star, and each of his fellow signees deserved the scholarship they were offered. Iowa’s reputation as a developmental program also means that its under-the-radar recruits could develop into stars, as no Big Ten program outperforms its wins relative to its recruiting ranking by more than the Hawkeyes do.

Still, it would be naïve to act like recruiting doesn’t matter. For all the criticism the ranking systems receive, they have proven incredibly accurate at predicting the success of top players and the teams that sign them. Four/five-star players make up 85.7% of Round 1 NFL Draft picks, are abundant on nearly every title contending team, and a team of economists from Lipscomb University analyzed recruiting and polling data over several years and concluded that “recruiting ranking data plays a very important role in explaining the success of college football teams.” Iowa is coming off a few strong recruiting classes, but one bad year can sink a program’s fortunes, as nearly every team to win a national championship has had four strong recruiting classes in the preceding four years. The star rankings matter, and so far, the Hawkeyes are several stars short. Iowa may not be expected to land a class of four/five-star players, but the lack of many high three-star commits (or many commits at all, for that matter) could impact Iowa’s depth and its talent for years to come.

Is It Too Late?:

Yes and no. Iowa’s 2022 recruiting ranking will probably finish below the program’s average, as many of the top recruits are already off the board or have winnowed their list enough to exclude late-comers. Furthermore, Iowa may struggle to find Power Five caliber starting talent at positions like running back with so few of its targets still in play. Running back is a particular position of worry given its outsized importance to Iowa’s offense, lack of scholarship backs on the roster, and the frequency of injuries to that position, especially at Iowa.

However, the Hawkeyes have more than half a year until National Signing Day and can still make up major ground. The Hawkeyes could surprise the national pundits by signing highly-touted prospects like Nwankpa or Wisconsin offensive lineman Carson Hinzman, both of whom are still considering the Hawks. Iowa can hit the junior college ranks to fill in any gaps in this recruiting class and can utilize the transfer portal to poach proven commodities from smaller schools. The Hawkeyes could also steal commitments from other schools that experience coaching changes as they did with 2021 recruit Michael Mylinski. Perhaps the coaches (particularly the younger members of the staff) can even find creative ways to use the new NIL rules to their advantage in pitching recruits. Maybe the recent commitment of 2023 recruit Maddux Borcherding-Johnson is a positive sign that the problems plaguing the Hawkeyes will not carry over to future classes.

The best-case scenario? Perhaps the Hawkeyes staff’s player evaluation skills are far outpacing those of the recruiting services in this class. Recruiting rankings have historically been accurate but could prove less so in 2022 due to the difficulties in evaluating talent during the COVID-impacted 2020 high school season. With scouts unable to travel to games and so many athletes sitting out or playing shortened seasons last year, the rankings could change dramatically over the coming months once players return to the field under more normal circumstances. Some of Iowa’s current commitments could shoot up the rankings once they are properly evaluated, as could some of the players Iowa will target next. After a year when nothing about football was normal, maybe the program that has had the same head coach, run the same offense, and utilized the same defensive principles for 2+ decades is the one program that knew exactly how to evaluate the players it needed for its system? Negative recruiting insinuations aside, maybe Ferentz really are one step ahead of everyone? One can hope, right?!

Conclusion:

Iowa football’s 2022 recruiting class is clearly not where it needs to be, something the staff is clearly well aware of. If negative recruiting is truly to blame for Iowa’s struggles, the staff must act quickly to develop strategies to counteract it. Iowa’s success on the field should speak for itself on the recruiting trail, but a few disappointing recruiting classes could make it hard for the Hawkeyes to continue replicating that success in the years to come.