Leistikow: How Iowa quietly assembled one of top recruiting classes in Kirk Ferentz era

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — On Wednesday, Iowa football will wrap up its highest-rated recruiting class in seven years.

It’s one of the best, period, of the Kirk Ferentz era. If you're into that sort of thing.

I don’t follow recruiting religiously, but that news snuck up on me. Maybe it did to you, too.

How did the Hawkeyes do it?

Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz cheers after the Hawkeyes scored a touchdown against Boston College during the 2017 Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in Bronx, New York on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017.

And is it worth getting excited about?

First, an overview. With Monday night’s commitment of three-star Georgia linebacker Jayden McDonald, the Hawkeyes’ 23-player class is essentially in the barn.

Iowa enters Wednesday’s second (and final) National Signing Day of this 2018 cycle with a No. 33 national ranking from Rivals.com, highest for Iowa by that website since No. 30 in 2011.

The 247sports composite puts Iowa 36th, highest by that service since 26th in 2011.

The Hawkeyes don’t have the elite class cornerstones as they did a year ago with five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa and four-star offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs.

“But it’s a lot of really good guys,” says Tom Kakert, the publisher of Hawkeye Report, a partner of Rivals.com.

Now, don't forget your annual reminder from Ferentz and his assistants: Recruiting rankings don’t mean a thing.

They’re right, from one angle of the argument. The three best Hawkeyes on last year’s team were two-star recruits in high school — Josh Jackson, Josey Jewell and Akrum Wadley. Iowa's identity continues to be developing two-star prospects into five-star producers.

But there’s a reason Alabama and Georgia and Ohio State and Oklahoma are near the top of the recruiting rankings year after year — then validate those on the field. Getting to the College Football Playoff starts with getting the horses.

Dowling Catholic's John Waggoner is one of the highest-rated recruits in Iowa's 2018 recruiting class.

Iowa’s not at that recruiting level, of course, and probably never will be. Only once in the 20-year Ferentz era, in 2005, did Iowa sign what was considered a top-15 national class.

But Wednesday will cap a quietly impressive three-year run for Iowa on the recruiting trail. (And, by the way, 2019 is off to a very good start.)

The Class of 2016 (ranked 40th by Rivals) brought us Nate Stanley, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker and Alaric Jackson — all key starters on last year’s 8-5 team.

The Class of 2017 (ranked 42nd) produced instant contributors like Epenesa, Wirfs, Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Matt Hankins.

The new Iowa Football Performance Center, which went into full use in 2015, certainly has been a plus factor in recruiting. So was that year’s 12-2 season that ended in the Rose Bowl.

According to Allen Trieu, the head analyst for Midwest recruiting for 247sports, there’s another reason Iowa is getting more love in the recruiting rankings.

Recruiting services are now able to reach outposts that Iowa often goes to land its prospects. And, as a result, those players get a more complete evaluation.

Bay Port's Jack Plumb (89) catches a pass in the end zone to score a touchdown against Ashwaubenon in a Fox River Classic Conference high school football game on Friday, September 8, 2017 at Ashwaubenon high school in Ashwaubenon, Wis.
Adam Wesley/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin

“We’ve seen most of this class. With the resources that we have available, I was able to go up to Green Bay and see (offensive lineman) Jack Plumb this year. We saw (running back) Henry Geil at a bunch of things,” Trieu says. “That probably didn't happen in the past, and I think that contributed to some of Iowa’s better players being very under-ranked.

“I would say the difference is more the exposure that some of these kids get to the world, more so than it is Iowa’s really changed up how they’ve recruited.”

Kakert points out another big factor in why this 2018 class became one of Ferentz’s most decorated.

He calls it the “Josh Jackson effect.”

Jackson went from under the radar to one of college football’s top cornerbacks last season. Jackson was so good, he left school after his junior season and is projected to be a first- or second-round NFL Draft pick.

In 2015, Iowa cornerback Desmond King’s winning the Jim Thorpe Award drew notice, too, and he had a strong rookie season with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Also, 2012 Iowa safety Micah Hyde was a Pro Bowler this year with the Buffalo Bills.

“Those things combined, and a lot of defensive backs in the Midwest are saying, ‘Holy cow,’” Kakert says. “… It’s a path to the NFL.”

The Hawkeyes hit home runs with defensive backs in this class.

Hazelwood Central defensive back Dallas Craddieth (right) knocks down a pass intended for De Smet's Jordan Johnson during a game on Friday, August 18, 2017 at De Smet High School in Creve Coeur, Mo.  Paul Kopsky, STLhighschoolsports.com

Rivals four-star safety Dallas Craddieth out of St. Louis chose Iowa over several other stellar offers. So did Indianapolis defensive backs Julius Brents and D.J. Johnson. These guys turned away the likes of Michigan State, Wisconsin, Notre Dame and LSU.

They are emblematic of the type of player Iowa consistently nabbed during this cycle.

That was why McDonald’s Monday commitment felt like the Hawkeye coaching staff punctuated this class with an exclamation point. They put a lot of effort into landing McDonald, and they got their man.

Also in this class: The Hawkeyes got their quarterback (four-star Spencer Petras, who is already on campus); they got instant help on the defensive line (led by Alabama-offered junior-college transfer Daviyon Nixon); and they got prospective playmakers (Indiana player of the year Tyrone Tracy among them).

“I will say this: This class, top to bottom, is one of their more heavily recruited classes," Trieu says, "if you looked at who Iowa had to beat on each of these guys."

Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete Hawkeye recruiting class without a few Reese Morgan specials.

The longtime Iowa assistant has a legendary recruiting eye for prospects others dismiss. Jewell is the prime example out of Decorah.

“I keep looking at a guy like Logan Klemp,” Kakert says of the South Hamilton High School linebacker who on Friday committed to Iowa. "And I keep thinking, ‘Boy, I’ve heard this story before.’ Small-town kid. Hangs on. Waits. Finally gets the offer. 

"I’m not saying it’s the Josey Jewell story all over again, but ..."

Klemp is from Jewell, Iowa.

(Just saying.)

So, yeah, feel free to be cautiously excited. In 2015, Iowa's recruiting class ranked 58th nationally by Rivals and 13th in the Big Ten. This year, it's seventh in the Big Ten and behind only Nebraska (23rd) among West Division teams. Since Rivals starting doing this in 2002, only Ferentz's classes of 2005, 2007 and 2011 have ranked higher.

It all seems encouraging. If you're into this sort of thing.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 23 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.