Leistikow: Hawkeyes' 2018 recruiting efforts in full swing

Chad Leistikow

For those who follow Iowa football recruiting, every no-news day lately has ended with a somewhat empty, anxious feeling.

The Hawkeyes’ scramble to the Feb. 1 National Signing Day finish line has understandably garnered a lot of consternation, given that since mid-August Iowa’s had more Class of 2017 prospects (four) de-commit from the program than commit to it (one; a two-star receiver from Wisconsin).

But what may be just as – or even more – important to focus on right now is how Iowa’s Class of 2018 begins.

The weekend’s commitment of offensive lineman Jeff Jenkins to Iowa underscored that thinking. The 6-foot-4, 260-pound prospect from of Crystal Lake, Ill., became the second high schooler in the Class of 2018 to officially unofficially join the Hawkeye program.

Remember, it was a year ago about this time that a defensive end from Edwardsville, Ill., named A.J. Epenesa became the fourth commitment to Iowa’s Class of 2017. Epenesa recently was named a five-star recruit by Rivals.com (Iowa's first five-star since 2005) and over the weekend was named defensive MVP of the Polynesian Bowl after recording five tackles, two sacks and two forced fumbles in the Hawaii-based all-star game.

Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff are sprinting to the finish line for the 2017 recruiting class while also chipping away at 2018.

Also on board with Iowa by this time last year was Tristan Wirfs, the offensive lineman from Mount Vernon who was recently upgraded to a four-star prospect by Rivals.

Two Januarys ago, Iowa had already secured two commitments in the Class of 2015 -- including from Nathan Stanley, who as a rising sophomore-to-be is listed as Iowa’s No. 1 quarterback entering spring drills.

HawkeyeReport.com publisher Tom Kakert agreed it’s “really important” to be working diligently on the 2018 class now, as Iowa’s coaches have been, while simultaneously trying to close the 2017 deal.

Iowa’s best recruiting work the past few years has come earlier, rather than later, in the process. This is the time when Kirk Ferentz’s staff can zero in on guys they really like, and get inside position on other programs that might try to swoop in later.

Take Jenkins, for example.

“If the kid was 280, 290, he’d probably have 20 offers from big schools,” Kakert said. “… It’s still early, but he’s got that nasty edge to him they like. I’d compare him to a Sean Welsh.”

He joins Mike Bruner, a 6-3, 215-pound outside linebacker from Mequon, Wis., in Iowa’s Class of 2018 that likely will see a bigger need at defensive tackle, linebacker and wide receiver.

“Good size, good speed,” Kakert said of Bruner. “… He’s pretty well thought-of; kind of under the radar.”

What also makes the 2018 class an important focus is the notable recruiting legislation that’ll likely be approved by the NCAA in April. Those changes include prospects being allowed to make official visits between April and June, plus an early signing period in December that only junior-college players have previously been able to utilize.

Both changes should help a program like Iowa’s – provided it can accomplish much of its recruiting legwork early.

That’s why even though Iowa is down three assistants right now after the departures of Greg Davis, Bobby Kennedy and Chris White, its remaining coaches are still using some time on getting to know 2018 recruits.

John Waggoner (94) leads Dowling Catholic's defense with seven sacks this season.

According to HawkeyeReport.com, Iowa has offered 72 prospects in the Class of 2018. Among some of the top Iowa targets, according to Kakert:

  • Micah Jones is a Rivals four-star wide receiver with nice size (6-5, 196) from Gurnee, Ill., who has visited Iowa several times. It goes without saying he plays a position of great Hawkeye need.
  • Trevor Trout (6-3, 295) is rated as one of the nation’s top defensive tackles from St. Louis. There is mutual interest, and he attends the same high school as Hawkeye basketball freshman Tyler Cook did.
  • Samson Evans (6-1, 196) is a talented quarterback from the same high school as Jenkins who was considered Illinois’ player of the year as a junior. He visited Iowa unofficially this past weekend with Jenkins and could play any number of positions, but prefers offense.
  • Inside Iowa’s borders, the Hawkeyes have made offers to Sioux City Heelan athlete Saybein Clark (6-1, 195), Creston offensive lineman Trevor Downing (6-4, 270) and Dowling Catholic defensive end John Waggoner (6-5, 230).

Two wild cards aside from impending NCAA legislation will impact Iowa's 2018 recruiting windfall.

The first: How will Iowa remake its offensive staff under new coordinator Brian Ferentz? The program needs to sell an improved approach for moving the football after finishing 121st nationally in total offense.

“He’s going to bring a different look. I think those (coaching) hires are going to be important,” Kakert said. “You’ve got an energetic recruiter to the north now (in Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck) who is going to compete for some of the kids that Iowa would like. And they’ve got to, I think, make a real push to get more dynamic, offensive players as skill positions.”

The second: How will Iowa be affected or change following the hubbub over its no-visiting-other-schools policy for verbal commitments that led to the loss this cycle of four Texas-based prospects, including three at skill positions?

“Does Kirk adjust that? Do they do something a little differently in their approach?” Kakert said. “Does that mean kids are going to hesitate more in making their commitments to Iowa as soon as they do?”

West High's Oliver Martin is introduced during senior night on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016.

Long-awaited Hawkeye recruiting news could be coming soon. Iowa fans should hear this week whether two official visitors from this past weekend, New Jersey receiver Ihmir Marsette-Smith and Georgia defensive back Trey Creamer, will commit to the Hawkeyes. Alabama-based linebacker Thomas Johnston, whose final three choices are Iowa, Arkansas and Ole Miss, is also expected to announce his decision this week. Any of the three would be good gets.

And of course, the wait continues with four-star Iowa City West wide receiver Oliver Martin. Iowa is battling Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan and others for this impressive homegrown talent.

But it's important to be reminded: At Iowa, it's often more about how you start than how you finish.

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.