Leistikow: Tackling 5 questions about Hawkeyes' latest recruiting class

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On Wednesday, the University of Iowa’s compliance office will receive 20 or so signatures via fax or email, all accepting a full-ride scholarship offer to play football for the Hawkeyes.

It’ll essentially mark the finish line for what turned out to be a wild and interesting recruiting journey for the Hawkeyes’ 2017 class.

The journey started with gusto, capturing momentum from a 12-0 regular season and Rose Bowl berth.

It got messy in the middle, with four high-profile defections and a debate over whether Kirk Ferentz’s no-visiting-other-schools policy for committed prospects was fair.

And it looks like it’ll finish pretty strong, despite Monday’s news that it fell short with in-town, four-star wide receiver Oliver Martin.

Kirk Ferentz goes into National Signing Day with three coaching vacancies. Whether that hurt the Hawkeyes' chances for a better recruiting finish is up for speculation.

For whatever it’s worth — and Hawkeye coaches will argue not much — Iowa will likely end up finishing in the high-30s in national recruiting rankings, according to the composite, which assembles data from multiple recruiting services. As of Tuesday afternoon, it was 37th, which would mark the Hawkeyes’ best finish by that measure since 2011 (27th).

So although there’s a lingering feeling of this class could’ve been better, it also will end up better than usual.

With that overview in mind, here’s a look at five answers to some Hawkeye-topical, signing day questions.

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How well did Iowa close?

The final-week scramble is tricky to evaluate. Usually, Iowa isn’t pulling in the four-star studs who select a hat on signing day. It won’t again this year, having lost the biggest late prize in Martin.

Why tricky? Take Iowa’s 2013 class, for example. Josey Jewell, Desmond King and Akrum Wadley would justifiably be labeled as lightly recruited class-fillers.. They arguably made the largest individual impacts for the Hawkeyes in 2016.

Monday’s commitment of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., running back Kyshaun Bryan was especially important. Bryan immediately became Iowa’s sixth-highest-rated 2017 recruit, and he essentially replaced Eno Benjamin — the most prominent of the Texas quartet to de-commit in October — one for one.

And striking in the Atlanta area with three-star cornerback Trey Creamer also gives the Iowa staff some validation for spending the past two years recruiting there.

I really liked the discovery of New Castle, Pa., safety Geno Stone. The former Kent State commit flipped to Iowa on Tuesday. Between he and Iowa City High’s Nate Wieland, a Monday flip from Northern Illinois, those are a pair of two-star names to remember in years to come.

The Hawkeyes picked up a scholarship punter late Tuesday in Milwaukee’s Ryan Gersonde, who has Australia roots. They still could land a defensive tackle (Kenosha, Wis., product Daviyon Nixon said he would announce Wednesday).

All in all, Iowa didn’t storm to the finish line. But it certainly didn’t sputter, either.

But … what about Oliver Martin?

A fair question. There's an in-town, elite prospect just 2 miles from Kinnick Stadium at your most desperate position of need (wide receiver), and he not only went elsewhere, but to a school within your conference.

Two thoughts.

One, Ferentz often references Iowa’s geographical position as a recruiting disadvantage. Yet, that argument has clear holes in it with a third in-state, four-star wide receiver having bolted for Michigan on Ferentz’s watch — Adrian Arrington (of Cedar Rapids), Amara Darboh (of West Des Moines) and now Martin. To Ferentz’s credit, he did land Keenan Davis (of Cedar Rapids) in the 2009 class.

Two, Martin’s departure reinforces the notion that Iowa City just isn’t an attractive FBS landing spot for wide receivers. And perhaps the only way to flip that perception is through offensive change. The good news is the Hawkeyes have a new, forward-thinking offensive coordinator in Brian Ferentz, 33. He has been given the opportunity to make that needed change.

Did coaching vacancies hurt recruiting?

With three openings out of nine full-time assistants, Iowa was certainly short-staffed in the final signing day push. But there’s not yet a significant drawn conclusion on this question.

Ferentz’s decision not to retain running backs coach Chris White and wide receivers coach Bobby Kennedy was partially about ineffective recruiting. Their hands were in the Benjamin mess, and they weren’t necessarily staff leaders in pulling in big-time prospects.

Iowa deployed recruiting-staff members Tyler Barnes and Scott Southmayd on the road in their place, so the Hawkeyes still had bodies on the road, faces in living rooms.


It’s more important for Kirk Ferentz to make good, calculated hires than rush them in order to maybe land an extra recruiting target or two.

Also, Ferentz did the right thing in letting White and Kennedy go when he did. Some coaches might have strung them along through signing day, since they were under contract anyway. But he let them go early to pursue other interests and, presumably, to expedite the coaching search.

The age-old question: Do stars matter?

We use recruiting ratings all the time in our writing, yet what they really mean is always a debate this time of year.

Answer: No and yes.

No, because as recruiting analyst Tom Lemming affirmed in an article I wrote two years ago, "fans should realize the stars are the most bogus thing ever. I'm one of the guys that helped start that stuff." Lemming correctly points out that if one name school offers a prospect, many more follow, and he argues that recruiting is more about identifying players who can develop. That is one of Iowa’s strengths.

Yes, because stars do correlate with success. Fox Sports’ Stewart Mandel a year ago pointed out that among’s top-20 recruiting rankings from 2010 to 2013, seven of those teams were also in the average AP Top 10 from 2012 to 2015. (The outliers were Oregon, Michigan State and Stanford.) Iowa has only been rated with a top-20 recruiting class once (in 2005).

So what comes first: The stars or the program's success?

What’s to like about Iowa’s class?

Given that this could be the Hawkeyes’ best recruiting performance (again, according to the yes-and-no flawed stars system) since 2011, there’s a lot to like.

If you’re invested in recruiting enough to read this far, you already know this class starts with 6-foot-5, 270-pound defensive end A.J. Epenesa in every way. The crown jewel of the class is — depending where you look — rated either the No. 6 (247sports), No. 21 (Scout) or No. 30 (Rivals) overall prospect in the country and would be the highest-rated recruit to make it to Iowa. (Kyle “Bonecrusher” Williams was No. 22 nationally in the Class of 2004 but failed to qualify academically and wound up at Purdue.)

What else I like: The quality and depth of the six defensive backs coming aboard, from the first commitment (Djimon Colbert) to the Texan who didn’t waver (Matt Hankins) to the final-week additions (Creamer and Stone).

I also think Iowa got prime-grade beef for its offensive line, staying in-state for four-star tackle prospects Tristan Wirfs (Mount Vernon) and Mark Kallenberger (Bettendorf).

With a need at receiver, Iowa loaded up on intriguing options in the scholarship ranks (led by 6-foot-3 Mississippi product Brandon Smith) and with walk-ons (including junior-college all-American Nick Easley from Newton).

Speaking of walk-ons, this is a bumper crop for Iowa, including Tuesday's addition of Dowling Catholic safety Jack Koerner, who turned down a full scholarship offer at South Dakota. You know how walk-ons have a tendency to succeed at Iowa.

There’s never a shortage of optimism on signing day. But overall, it seems to me the Hawkeyes' 2017 class started and finished well.

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.

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