Sports writers Chad Leistikow and Chris Cuellar talk about the late push from Iowa as they round out this year's recruiting class.
IOWA CITY, Ia. — College football’s National Signing Day is now associated with eight-hour television specials and prospects revealing their future school via fake-drama wardrobe choices.
But if you want to hear a really good, really real recruiting story, Kelvin Bell’s got one to tell.
It starts on a spring Friday with Bell, Iowa’s recruiting coordinator, visiting his hometown of Olive Branch, Miss.
The night before, Bell had driven 72 miles from Florence Muscle Shoals, Ala., after visiting a linebacker prospect there with Iowa ties. He had planned to take a day off from recruiting and spend time with his mother.
But Mom had to go to work on Friday, so Bell got antsy — coaches always have to stay busy, you know — and went to his former high school. While there, he ran into a trusted assistant coach who told him about a wide receiver from Lake Cormorant, an unincorporated small town in northwest Mississippi.
“Out in the middle of cotton fields,” Bell says, “… 25 miles away from civilization.”
Bell knew this wasn’t a typical recruiting area for Iowa, but he went off the grid to follow the lead. Along the way, he stopped to see another coach for a second opinion.
This coach told him, Bell recalls, “When you see him, you’re going to love him. I don’t know why people aren’t recruiting him."
Had to be grades, right?
Nope, the coach insisted. The kid had a GPA better than 3.4 and scored 22 on the ACT. And he just happened to play the biggest position of need the Hawkeyes had in this recruiting cycle.
At this point, Bell thought it was too good to be true. A fable, he called it. But, obviously intrigued, he pressed on.
“I roll into the school,” Bell says, “and I see the kid coming out of the building, and I’m like, ‘Whoa.’ … He looks like they’re supposed to look.”
Bell was about to meet 6-foot-3, 205-pound Brandon Smith, who would eventually become the most unlikely of 22 Class of 2017 commitments the Hawkeyes secured Wednesday with signed national letters of intent.
Bell would soon find out about Smith’s excellent bloodlines. His mom ran track at Ole Miss; his dad ran for Mississippi State. And he has a sister who was a state-champion sprinter and accomplished in the shot put, of all things.
In track, Bell learned, Smith could high jump 6 feet, 10 inches.
Oh, and Bell noticed his hands, too — important for a receiver. Smith wears size 3XL gloves, just like Bell (a former defensive tackle) does.
Why hadn't anyone else found this guy, Bell wondered. But he also knew, having grown up there, that three of the all-time NFL greats who are from Mississippi didn't get major-college recruiting attention, either: Brett Favre, Walter Payton and Jerry Rice.
So, Bell invited Smith to come to Iowa City for an unofficial visit in June. To his amazement, Smith told him then, “I’ll be there.”
Smith and his family made the eight-hour drive north. Iowa offered a scholarship. At the end of the weekend, Smith — who had been to camps at Alabama and Florida State, too — was ready to accept.
Bell couldn’t believe it.
“He said, ‘You guys are showing us love. You appreciate us. You stood by your word. I want to commit,’” Bell recalls. “I said, ‘Don’t tell me, tell the head coach.’”
Smith called Kirk Ferentz, and it was done.
It's a story that few have heard. In contrast, you might’ve seen countless headlines and endless speculation about another wide-receiver recruit that Iowa didn’t get: Michigan four-star signee Oliver Martin of Iowa City West.
The Hawkeyes tried for Martin, for sure.
“Certainly, I think we worked as hard as we possibly could to recruit him,” Ferentz says, “and there are no regrets there.”
Bell says that aside from Hawkeye commitments Levi Duwa and Tristan Wirfs, no prospect spent more time on campus than Martin.
It just didn't work out.
“Ultimately, it wasn’t Iowa,” Bell says. “And we’re fine with that. Because we feel good about the receivers we have coming in.”
That group: Smith, Max Cooper (6-0, 175), Henry Marchese (6-3, 190) and Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-2, 175), along with preferred walk-ons Nick Easley and Yale Van Dyne Jr.
Landing Smith-Marsette as the final signee of the Class of 2017 “was really big for us,” Ferentz says. And Cooper and Marchese arrive with a reputation of getting open and catching anything thrown their way.
“Which was a problem we had this year,” Bell notes, a reference to Iowa’s 121st-ranked offense in 2016. “It was hard to get open, and it wasn’t always caught when it was thrown.”
And then there’s Smith, perhaps the gem of this class you've never heard of despite unbelievable career numbers in Mississippi’s Class 5A (6A is the biggest): 205 receptions, 3,641 yards and 41 touchdowns.
“I told him, we need a big outside receiver,” Bell says. "When you throw it to him, the guy catches it.”
Bell told Smith in June that once word got out about his Iowa commitment, other scholarship offers would come. And he was right. SEC schools kept calling. So did another successful Big Ten West program.
But Smith kept the offers to himself, instead of spreading them on social media.
“He never wavered,” Bell says.
And on Wednesday, with his parents by his side at his high school, Smith officially signed with the Hawkeyes.
It was a moment that never would've happened if Bell's mother hadn't gone to work on that Friday.
“Unbelievable,” Bell says.
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.