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Let's Talk About Football Recruiting For a Minute

Taking a look at Iowa's 2013 football recruiting class so far.

Adam Robinson was a 2* success story, for the most part.  They don't all work out that well.
Adam Robinson was a 2* success story, for the most part. They don't all work out that well.
David Purdy

In the wake of the recent verbal commitment of former NIU commit Ben Niemann, there's been some gnashing of teeth about the quality of Iowa's recruiting class. I thought it was worth taking a look at the composition of the class so far and seeing how much angst is warranted.

Here's a breakdown of Iowa's current 2014 football recruiting, listed in order of verbal commitment (from oldest to most recent):

(click to embiggen)

As we can see, Iowa started off the '14 recruiting class with a bang. They nabbed a verbal from Pierschbacher, the top recruit in the state (or joint top recruit in the state, depending on your level of appreciation for Iowa State verbal Allen Lazard) and a consensus 4* player, then followed that up with another highly-regarded in-state prospect in Jay Scheel (a 4* recruit everywhere but Scout). Not too shabby, especially for a team breaking in a handful of new coaches and coming off a 4-8 campaign, the worst season in the last decade. In addition to the glitzy star ranking, Pierschbacher also carries an impressive offer list, including both of last year's BCS Championship Game participants. Scheel's offer sheet is much more modest (and local), but still includes multiple BCS teams.

The next recruit after the Pierschbacher-Scheel one-two punch was considerably less-decorated Lucas LeGrand., another in-state recruit. LeGrand is the rare recruit whose star ranking appears to vastly exceed his offer sheet; he's a consensus 3* recruit, but lists only an offer from Northern Colorado alongside his Iowa offer. Still, if there's one position where we're not concerned about Ferentz & Co. taking a bit of a gamble on a player, it's offensive line. Outside of perhaps defensive back, no other position on the Iowa roster has so consistently seen lightly-regarded prospects transformed into difference-making college football players (and eventual NFL draft picks).

After LeGrand, Iowa finally landed their first out-of-state prospects in Truitt (D.C.), Hilliard (Ohio), and Jones (Texas). Truitt and Hillard are consensus 3* recruits, but there's absolutely no consensus on Jones. Rivals considers him a 2*, Scout considers him a 3*, 247 Sports considers him a 4*, and ESPN hasn't even gotten around to ranking him yet. That said, Jones' offer sheet, which includes offers from quality BCS teams like Nebraska and Baylor, certainly seems befitting of more than a 2* ranking. Truitt lists offers from a handful of BCS programs, though the listed Tennessee offer may not actually be available to him now (Butch Jones has the Vols doin' work on the recruiting trail this year; several services have them with the top-ranked class so far this year). Hilliard is an outlier in terms of offer sheets: Indiana is his only other BCS offer, to go along with offers from virtually every MAC school around. (On the other hand, MAC teams have managed to find some marvelous skill position players in recent years, so maybe piggybacking on MAC schools in that category isn't quite as damning as it would be at other positions, like OL or DE. Just a thought.)

Outsey is another out-of-state recruit (NJ); like Hilliard, he lists one BCS offer (Pitt) and a host of MAC offers. Iowa dipped back into the homeland for their next verbal, OL Keegan Render, a near-consensus 3* recruit with other offers from Iowa State and Northern Illinois. Not the most impressive offer sheet there, but again if there's one position unit where we have almost-unquestioned faith in Ferentz and the Iowa coaches, it's along the offensive line. Iowa stayed in-state for their next verbal, DE (?) Matt Nelson, who was also Iowa's most decorated target since Pierschbacher in terms of offer sheets, with listed offers from Notre Dame, Stanford, Nebraska, and Wisconsin (among others).

So far, so good. At this point, I would argue that this was looking like a fairly typical Iowa class, with a few really strong prospects surrounded by a host of solid recruits and a few quasi-flyers. It's only with Iowa's most recent verbal commitments where this narrative has hit a snag.

In all honesty, it may not be fair to lump Iowa's next verbal commit after Nelson into that group -- Mick Ellis is a kicker and reportedly a very good one. He only listed an offer from Yale, but he reportedly impressed several teams with his performances during kicking camps and seemed to be on the verge of receiving additional offers -- Iowa may have simply acted quickest in order to lock him up (inasmuch as a purely verbal commitment locks anyone up, that is). Kickers and punters exist in a bizarre side realm in the world of recruiting (which is, itself, pretty damn weird); comparing them to recruits at other positions seems like folly.

But Iowa's last two verbal commitments have definitely been somewhat head-scratching. Neither Terrence Harris nor Ben Niemann have much in the way of star rankings (both are consensus 2* recruits) or offer sheets (they have no other BCS offers beyond Iowa and they have a lot of #MACtion among those other offers). In terms of each individual player, that means very little -- as we're all well aware, Iowa has a long list of former 2* recruits who became productive and hugely successful players and there's no reason that either Harris or Niemann (or both) couldn't be the next 2* success story at Iowa. It's when we look at that recruiting strategy in the aggregate that we start getting concerned.

Again, bringing in a 2* recruit because you think he's an undervalued diamond in the rough? No big deal. But bringing in half a class of 2* recruits because you think they're all undervalued diamonds in the rough? That's cause for alarm. Recruiting rankings aren't perfect -- but they're also not worthless and gambling that recruiting services (and fellow coaching staffs) have whiffed on that many players is not a very sound strategy. It's akin to buying a bunch of lottery tickets and making that your retirement plan: sure, if one pays off, you're happy, but if they don't pay off, you're stuck with a bunch of worthless tickets.

One of the biggest problems the Iowa football team has faced in recent years has been an overall talent drain; Ferentz & Co. have struggled mightily to replace the players who led Iowa to success in 2008-10. We can trace a lot of those struggles back to the 2008 and 2009 recruiting classes; 25 of the 45 players Iowa added in those classes were 2* recruits (per Rivals). That's way too many lottery tickets. Sure, some of them paid off (Micah Hyde, Adam Robinson), but far too many of them never made it to Iowa, washed out shortly after arriving, or never developed into productive players. That's the danger of over-reliance on 2* players. Iowa's last three recruiting classes appear much more promising, in part because they haven't recruited as many 2* players (just 15 combined over those three years, or 10 less than Iowa took in 2008 and 2009 alone). It hasn't hurt that the 2* players Iowa has recruited in those classes have included guys like Jordan Canzeri, Kevonte Martin-Manley, Damon Bullock, and Anthony Hitchens, guys that seem like examples of Iowa finding genuinely undervalued talents. (Granted, a more pessimistic reading of that information would be that Iowa has been over-reliant on 2* recruits, which is why Iowa has gone 11-14 over the last two seasons and finds themselves picked near the bottom of the Big Ten this season.)

It's probably not time to pound the 2* panic button on Iowa's 2014 recruiting class just yet. To date, the class includes just a pair of 2* recruits, Niemann and Harris. (Again, opinions on Jones are currently all over the map and Ellis is a kicker, for whom conventional recruiting wisdom does not really apply.) That's just 1/6 of this recruiting class. (Granted, your concern might also extend to a few of the 3* recruits who don't have very impressive offer sheets.) Iowa will probably end up taking around 20 recruits in this class (primarily because they take around 20 recruits in every class), so it's the make-up of those remaining 8-10 recruits that will determine what this class looks like. If recruits like Niemann and Harris become the new normal for the rest of this Iowa class, feel free to be alarmed -- that would mean we're staring at a class that's around 50% 2* recruits, which is troubling. (It would also make the class eerily reminiscent of the 2009 class, which was full of 2* recruits and a few high-profile in-state gems in Brandon Wegher and Keenan Davis.) Again, a class half-full of 2* recruits is a class with too many long-shot gambles in it and a class that doesn't bode well for Iowa football a few years from now. We're not at that point yet and, according to the recruitniks, Iowa is still in good standing with several 3* recruits. But it's definitely a trend worth keeping an eye on.