Leistikow: How incoming Hawkeyes freshman Justin Britt won over Kirk Ferentz
Two Junes ago, Justin Britt and his father, Samuel, were on their way from Indianapolis to Iowa City.
The destination: an Iowa football camp flush with college prospects.
The goal: to return to Indiana with a full-ride scholarship offer to one day play for the Hawkeyes.
“The whole car ride there, I was telling my dad, ‘I need to be perfect today,’” Britt recalled this week. “If I’m perfect, I’ll most likely get an offer.”
As it turned out, he didn’t need to be perfect.
He just had to impress one (important) guy.
And he did. Britt successfully captured the interest of college football’s longest-tenured coach. From the first moments he saw Britt compete on that Sunday in 2017, Kirk Ferentz was enthralled with what he saw.
“I can’t tell you what it was,” Ferentz, who just completed Year 20 as Iowa's coach, recently told the Register. “He blocked really well, whoever he went against. But there’s just something about his personality that made me feel good. A really positive vibe.”
Ferentz, maybe now more than ever, places a high priority on character.
When asked about specifically about Britt’s performance, it’s notable that Britt's actions after the football action stood out.
"I just felt it, standing there. I liked that when he knocked someone down, he helped them up,” Ferentz said. “He just had a real good way about him."
After the camp broke, Britt lingered at Iowa's Hansen Football Performance Center. He told his father they weren’t leaving until they talked to Iowa’s coaches one more time.
Soon, recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell pulled them into Ferentz’s office.
The offer was made.
And from that point on, Ferentz made securing Britt’s commitment a top priority.
It’s not often that Ferentz personally recruits a prospect. But that’s what happened with Britt, who was high school teammates with current Hawkeye Julius Brents.
“Coach Ferentz, he was going to do whatever he could to get Justin in the building,” said Iowa director of recruiting Tyler Barnes.
The story gets interesting from there. Recruiting stories often are. Britt had his phone stolen, and he lost touch with Ferentz as a result. Once they finally reconnected, Britt couldn’t help but laugh at the interactions he and Iowa’s all-time wins leader enjoyed.
The stolen phone? Ferentz related to Britt by telling him about how one of his daughters once had a phone accidentally fall into a toilet.
"Everything I would say, he would have a story about,” Britt said, chuckling. “Like a life story."
I imagine current and former Hawkeye players reading this can relate.
Ferentz always has a story.
In June 2018, about a year after that scholarship offer, Britt officially accepted. Indiana, Louisville, Michigan State and Purdue wanted Britt, but didn’t get him.
The final selling point of Iowa City?
“Having that family atmosphere. Not just being wanted because of football. I still wanted to be considered a person,” Britt said. “(Ferentz's staff) being connected for more than 20 years, I just felt at home. It took a while to realize that.”
This week, Britt will be driving back to Iowa City again.
This time, he’s coming to stay.
The plan is to arrive Thursday evening, in time for freshman orientation. When classes begin Monday, he’ll officially be a college student.
He’s among an Iowa-record six freshmen football players enrolling early. He’ll be roommates with fellow offensive lineman Ezra Miller. The others arriving this week: quarterback Alex Padilla, running back Shadrick Byrd, linebacker Jestin Jacobs and defensive back Daraun McKinney.
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They’ll all benefit from winter strength and conditioning and spring practice before the other freshmen arrive in June, in the lead-up to fall camp and the 2019 season.
For Britt, that means immediate access to top-shelf rehabilitation.
He tore an ACL in the second game of his senior season at Warren Central High School. He’s completed about three months of recovery since knee surgery and said that on Monday, the knee had reached a full range of motion. That’s excellent progress, which should continue under the watchful eye of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle.
Barnes said Iowa sees Britt as a future center. They’ll likely start him at all interior line positions. At 6-foot-4, 290 pounds and a colorful personality, it’s easy to make the comparison to another jovial, talented former Hawkeye lineman: James Daniels.
In fact, Britt encountered Daniels — who just completed a successful rookie season as a starting left guard for the Chicago Bears — during his official visit to Iowa in June. Daniels told him to keep his head down and trust his coaching. He got Britt excited about working with offensive line coach Tim Polasek.
And, surely, the two connected on a personal level.
“Justin, he’s the type of guy that walks in the room and it just lights up,” Barnes said. “He’s a fun guy to be around. A good leader. Guys gravitate toward him.”
That sounds a lot like Daniels.
Britt already has impressed Ferentz with his technical knowledge of the game. During their final visit before the Dec. 19 signing day, Ferentz remarked that Britt was identifying things some of his third-year players at Iowa couldn’t.
Interestingly, Daniels enrolled early at Iowa, too. He was a quick study and a fast riser. Three Januarys later, Daniels was declaring for the 2018 NFL Draft.
Once the knee is healed up, could Britt be on track to become the next James Daniels?
“I wouldn’t say that yet. That’s not fair to the guy. Like the Desmond King thing,” Ferentz said. “But he’s got a little juice to him. It’s fun to see.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.