Sports reporter Chris Cuellar looks ahead at who could be the top prospects coming out of Iowa in 2018. Michael Zamora/The Register
IOWA CITY, Ia. — I’m guilty of it. A lot of us are.
We hear the Iowa football program has offered a prospect who is committed to, say, a Mid-American Conference school late in the recruiting process and — either mentally or in our social-media posts — label that player as a “fallback.”
But after an enlightening interview with Hawkeye recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell on Wednesday afternoon, I felt compelled to share some things that hopefully can help everyone that follows recruiting — including the high-schoolers being recruited — better understand an unscientific process.
In three words, Bell stressed: “Just be patient.”
I’ll try to explain with a poker analogy.
Iowa's coach talks of his recruiting class' five-star prize.
Imagine Iowa is in a game of Texas Hold’em. Those at the table with big stacks of chips are Ohio State and Michigan. Iowa’s chip count is somewhere in the middle, slightly less than Michigan State’s and about the same as Wisconsin’s. The MAC schools are playing, too, but they only have a few chips at their disposal.
Now suppose as Iowa, you are dealt a pair of 10s. That’s a nice hand that doesn’t come along too often. But how do you play it?
If you go all-in too soon, big-stack Michigan might decide to play — in part to see if they can push you out or take your chips. And Michigan State and Wisconsin could jump in, too. Suddenly, what seemed like a good hand now has to hold up against several others until the final card is turned. The odds of winning are greatly reduced.
But if you slow-play the 10s — by not tipping your hand — maybe you can get isolated heads-up against a small-stack MAC player. Now, the odds of winning are very good.
The example isn’t perfect. But it shows that recruiting, as in a game of poker, can involve playing coy to reap a big reward.
And that’s a big reason why Iowa picked up eight commitments — 36 percent — in its 22-player Class of 2017 in the final eight days before Wednesday’s signing day.
“You identify your kids. We call it, ‘Keep ‘em warm,’” Bell said. “And then boom.”
The all-time example of an Iowa slow-play was Desmond King. The future two-time all-American cornerback was committed to Ball State as the clock wound down on signing day in 2013.
Iowa defensive coordinator Phil Parker was well aware that King was an electric playmaker from Detroit who had a state-record 29 career interceptions. But Parker knew that if Iowa had offered too early, Michigan and/or Michigan State would be prone to pounce, too.
So Parker waited until the final recruiting weekend before signing day, then made his move on King.
“Once the flag goes up that Iowa has offered, or once the flag goes up that Wisconsin has offered … then all the wolves come at you,” Bell said. “And a kid you had a shot at now has 30 offers from other schools, and you don’t know what’s a real offer. It just totally dilutes the process.
“Everybody’s doing the same thing. Everybody plays it different.”
And no scenario is exactly the same.
For example, Iowa was recruiting Kenosha, Wis., defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon for a long time. It only seemed like the Hawkeyes sprung in late. They kept in touch with Nixon along the way and waited for the right moment to sneak in a last-minute offer, just before the final weekend for official visits.
And on signing day after a visit to Iowa City, 6-foot-5, 290-pound Nixon flipped from Northern Illinois to Iowa.
The acquisition of Geno Stone, a two-star defensive back from New Castle, Pa., transpired differently.
Stone was a Kent State commit but got a late offer from another program with a reputation for talent evaluation, Michigan State. That got Iowa’s attention. These schools watch each other.
It so happened that shortly after it offered Stone, Michigan State became full at defensive back. That's when Iowa swooped in and nabbed Stone just before the finish line. (And I’ve watched his film — he doesn’t hit like a two-star.)
“Pennsylvania is a talent-rich state,” Bell said. “… And not everybody there can go to Pitt. Not everybody there can go to Penn State. It’s one of those deals, where a guy slips through the cracks.”
Iowa City High’s Nate Wieland also went from the MAC (Northern Illinois) to the Big Ten after the Hawkeyes extended a late offer.
Slow-playing doesn’t always work. And it can be agonizing for the prospect.
If an Iowa coach visits a player with a MAC offer and doesn’t finish the meeting with a scholarship offer, the player might get discouraged.
Bell’s message to them: Don’t be.
“If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times to a kid,” Bell said. “Just be patient. Just be patient.
“I (might) think you’re great. But if I offer you right now, so is everybody else. And I don’t want to play that game, because that’s not a game that Iowa typically wins.”
It’s a good reminder that the game of recruiting isn’t staged on a level playing field.
Let’s revisit, one more time, the recruitment of four-star Iowa City West wide receiver Oliver Martin.
Was Iowa trying its best to keep Martin under the radar by holding back an offer? Maybe. But once Martin performed well at The Opening in Chicago, the secret was out. Five Big Ten schools (including Iowa) offered within five days. Michigan and Oregon weren’t far behind. Notre Dame and Ohio State eventually joined the party, too.
With so many players at the table, pocket 10s don’t look too good. And Michigan raked in all the chips.
The Iowa City West senior signed his letter of intent after a hectic recruiting process.
It’s why next recruiting cycle, I’m going to try to remember — and hopefully others will, too — that a school waiting to offer a prospect doesn’t mean he’s a fallback or that he’s even accurately rated a two- or three-star player.
Patience can prove to be a winning strategy, for both school and prospect.
“You can get some good football players that way,” Bell said. “But the kid’s got to have a good head on his shoulders.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.