Iowa sports columnist Chad Leistikow and sports reporter Chris Cuellar look at how Iowa can rebound from a heart breaking loss to Penn State and take on a fast and physical Michigan State. Rodney White/The Register
Steve Wiltfong saw the recruiting romance between Hawkeye football and Indianapolis high schools coming.
The national director of recruiting for 247 Sports lives in Indiana’s capital, where professional sports reign. But football has gained ground since 2000 with kids growing up in a basketball-crazed state.
Iowa has stayed remarkably stable in that time, selling recruits on head coach Kirk Ferentz’s developmental program and the ability to turn hard-working, underrated prospects into NFL-ready players.
They were bound to catch each other’s eye, eventually.
“Those kids that they’re getting out of Indianapolis,” Wiltfong says, “it was a layup for Iowa.”
After recruiting just one Indiana prospect over the last four classes – reserve running back Toks Akrinibade – the Hawkeyes currently hold verbal commitments from four Indianapolis-based players.
The drive to Iowa City takes less than six hours for 2018 recruits Tyrone Tracy, Donald “D.J.” Johnson, Julius Brents, and Tyrone’s 2019 cousin Larry Tracy. And based on Iowa’s emphasis on the city and suburban programs, they won’t be the last Indianapolis prospects making that drive on Interstate 74.
“They’ve just put in the work and built the relationships there to find guys that are the right fit for Iowa,” said Blair Sanderson, editor for Rivals site Hawkeye Report.
Johnson and Brents are defensive backs and the highest-rated commits in Iowa’s 2018 class. Tyrone Tracy is a three-star running back projected to play receiver for the Hawkeyes, with speed Wiltfong says has hit 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash. Larry Tracy is a physical 5-foot-10 cornerback and one of Iowa’s four early 2019 commits.
“The high-end talent has been here,” Wiltfong said.
Here are three themes that have allowed Iowa to have recruiting success in central Indiana so far this year:
Bringing in Kelvin Bell
Serving in his second season as Iowa’s recruiting coordinator, the former Hawkeye defensive lineman is a rising star on the recruiting trail. An affable yet plain-spoken Mississippian, Bell took over his territory from former linebackers coach Jim Reid and the move is trending positively.
“Kelvin Bell pounds the pavement,” Wiltfong said. “Some coaches go on the road and don’t work it very hard. Kelvin is constantly in high schools, talking to other high school coaches about other kids in the area, networking with coaches to stay on top of everything in his recruiting territory. He’s doing a fantastic job in Indiana and I know the coaches in Indiana like him a lot.”
A portion of the Hawkeyes' eighth summer practice was open to the media
Bell communicates and outlines Iowa’s plan for prospects from the ground-up, with first-hand experience as a former Ferentz player. He knows the personalities and physical traits the Hawkeyes like in their prospects and is willing to collaborate with other assistants, using wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland to secure Tyrone Tracy’s commitment in April.
Bell is proving to be a capable lead recruiter in a fertile and increasingly competitive state.
“His recruits all seem to be getting close,” Sanderson said. “They take visits together, ride together from Indianapolis from Iowa City and stay in touch. And Tyrone Tracy ended up helping bring in the later commits, too.”
Indianapolis has improved
The city known for auto racing hasn’t historically produced as many elite football prospects as Midwest metros like Chicago, St. Louis, or even Detroit, but it’s getting better. The state of Indiana had more than 40 FBS commits in 2017 and already boasts 30 in 2018, including a trio of four-star prospects at the top of the list. By comparison, the state of Iowa has about half the population as Indiana and currently has seven FBS commits in its 2018 class.
Brents’ prep coach at Warren Central, Jason West, highlighted those developments after the 6-2 safety committed earlier this month.
“Schools are coming here and making Indianapolis important,” West told Wiltfong and Scout analyst Allen Trieu on their weekly college football podcast. “Therefore, they’re sending their strongest recruiters.
“It’s a hotbed now. You’re seeing kids from Indianapolis all over the country and all over the NFL. That wasn’t the norm 10 and 20 years ago.”
Former Indianapolis Colts star quarterback Peyton Manning is credited with some of the sport’s rise locally. Club teams, offseason workouts, enhanced strength and conditioning programs, and even spring showcases for college scouts have become the norm.
“The high school football facilities in the Indianapolis suburbs and township schools go toe-to-toe with about anywhere in the country,” Wiltfong said. “There’s great coaching in the area … and they’re putting their kids in position to be seen by schools like Iowa.”
Indiana has 26 prospects rated three-stars or higher in 2018 by the 247 Sports Composite. Only six represent schools outside Indianapolis and its suburbs. Iowa’s verbals have come out of Decatur Central (the Tracys), North Central (Johnson), and Warren Central (Brents) -- all located in Indianapolis.
Surveying the scene
Iowa’s recruiting wins in Indiana are less about swooping in and more about studying the void. Indiana and Notre Dame are simply not keeping the state’s best players in their backyard.
The top eight 2017 prospects signed with Power 5 programs from out-of-state. The top two 2018 players are currently committed to Michigan.
“Iowa does a very thorough job of looking at places where it can win recruiting battles,” Wiltfong said. “Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana are places where young men can drive to Iowa City. They’re going to scout those areas heavily and it just worked out that they found guys that they like and could get them on campus.
“They’re hitting that blueprint hard and looking for Iowa-type players. They found a few in Indianapolis.”
Recruiting roundup: Indy prospects, Logan Lee play well ahead of Hawkeye visits
Iowa initially focused on high-profile 2018 and 2019 players from the St. Louis area, but Bell and the staff turned up commitments in July, August and September from Indianapolis. The work might not be done in the 317 area code, either. Offers have been extended to Brents’ teammates David Bell (a four-star receiver) and Justin Britt (a three-star offensive lineman).
And Iowa may already have the hot hand. Notre Dame didn’t pick up an in-state commit in 2017. Indiana has had one winning season since 1995.
“Notre Dame might offer a kid here and there, and they’ll typically get them – obviously not the case with D.J. Johnson,” Sanderson said. “But it doesn’t seem like there’s a ton of competition there right now. Iowa has taken advantage.”