Leistikow: Names to remember? Exploring the importance of Iowa's 2018 football walk-ons
IOWA CITY, Ia. — On Jan. 25, Iowa football’s director of recruiting sent out a tweet that got my attention.
"Man, this walk-on class is something else!” Tyler Barnes wrote. “Remember these names #Hawkeye fans ... you will hear them regularly in the future!”
Having followed Hawkeye football since Hayden Fry’s early years in Iowa City, I’ve long been aware of the program’s rich relationship with walk-on players. Yet as a journalist who has now covered a lot of recruiting, when I saw Barnes’ tweet, I realized: Considering Iowa has five former walk-ons in my projected 2018 starting lineup, these guys merit some attention in conjunction with National Signing Day.
Especially this year.
Iowa on Wednesday confirmed the signings of 20 walk-ons — about double what it usually brings in — to join the 23 recruits who have full scholarships in the Class of 2018.
That’s a total class of 43 strong.
Ten of the 20 walk-ons turned down scholarship offers elsewhere. All 20 were multisport athletes in high school, a characteristic important to head coach Kirk Ferentz and his staff.
“I feel like we’re getting steals on all these guys, to be honest with you,” Barnes said Wednesday in an interview with the Des Moines Register. “There (are) no guys on here that we signed that are just bodies. That’s probably behind those tweets and the excitement.”
One fan tweeted to Barnes that Iowa’s walk-on class would be ranked higher than some FCS schools, which can offer full-ride scholarships.
“Which is probably true,” Barnes said. “It’s unfortunate for those FCS schools, but it’s probably true. … It’s been kind of crazy how it’s come together.”
As I looked into this list of walk-ons, it seemed each one had an intriguing skill set or story ... or both.
There are family connections.
Waukee defensive end Nathan Nelson is the younger brother of current Hawkeye star Anthony.
West Lyon safety Jaden Snyder is the younger brother of current Hawkeye safety Brandon, who also came to Iowa as a walk-on.
“Brandon swears he’s bigger, faster, stronger (than he was),” Barnes said. “So, we’ll take his word for it.”
Offensive lineman Trey Winters is the son of former Iowa basketball player James.
Fullback Connor Ruth is the nephew of legendary Nebraska football walk-ons Joel and Jeff Makovicka.
“So he’s entering enemy territory,” Barnes joked.
Iowa is bringing in five offensive linemen and six linebackers as walk-ons. Two junior-college linebackers, Nick Anderson and Colton Dinsdale, are already with the team.
There’s intrigue at the skill positions.
Wisconsin running back Kordell Stillmunkes ran a 4.41-second 40-yard dash at Iowa’s camp last summer.
“Blazing fast,” Barnes said.
Marion wide receiver Blair Brooks, the grandson of the late Iowa broadcasting legend Bob Brooks, brings an athletic 6-foot-3 frame to the passing game.
"I’ve had a number of people text me,” Barnes said, “and say they think Blair might be the sleeper of the walk-on class."
Keep in mind: Iowa's leading receiver in 2017 was a walk-on, Nick Easley.
Iowa didn’t add a tight end among its 2018 scholarship recruits. But Williamsburg’s Ben Subbert (6-foot-4, 235 pounds) essentially is scholarship-quality. He spurned an offer from reigning FCS champion North Dakota State to walk on at Iowa.
“It’s a bonus,” Barnes said. “We don’t expect to beat those guys on a walk-on.”
Longtime assistant Reese Morgan and director of player personnel Scott Southmayd spearhead Iowa’s recruitment of walk-ons.
So, why take so many this time?
Iowa’s existing walk-on group has been depleted over the past few years. After a heavier-than-usual year for injuries in 2017, the Hawkeyes found themselves thin at certain positions — such as offensive line — even for practices.
There’s also no NCAA cap on roster spots. Iowa has a number it needs to adhere to, based on Title IX requirements, but the program generally can accommodate around 115 players (the scholarship limit is 85), with 105 allowed to participate in preseason camp in August.
And one other bonus for both player and school? The meals.
NCAA legislation enacted a few years ago allows Iowa to feed its walk-on players, just like it does the scholarship guys. That’s a huge benefit in a walk-on’s wallet and development, not a luxury Cole Croston and Riley McCarron — two former Iowa walk-ons who went to the Super Bowl last week as rostered New England Patriots — had during their pre-scholarship years.
Instead of the No. 3 meal at McDonald’s, walk-ons now receive a Chris Doyle-approved, university-funded diet.
"It’s great food," Barnes said. "And it helps with that development.”
Twenty names to know for the future? Perhaps.
But they’re certainly worth mentioning now.
“We’re not just trying to recruit guys to be bodies,” Barnes said. “That’s not going to make our football team better. Every single one of these 20 guys, we feel really good about.”
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.