Leistikow: Unearthing secrets to Phil Parker's Iowa football recruiting finds

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

Here’s something about the Iowa football program that has gotten clearer with time: Phil Parker isn’t appreciated nationally for the elite defensive coordinator that he has become.

And that’s just fine with Hawkeye fans, who trust and appreciate the 21st-year Iowa assistant’s ability to elevate lightly recruited prospects into dominant college players with an NFL future.

Perhaps nothing speaks to Parker’s quietly successful ways than his seemingly annual exploits on the recruiting trail. Usually, they're back in Michigan, where the Ohio native once played (and coached) for Michigan State.

Sneaky Phil was at it again last week, as he landed a commitment from a defensive back from Belleville, Michigan, who was basically unknown to recruiting services. Brendan Deasfernandes held one Division I scholarship offer, from FCS Southeast Missouri State, and two from in-state Division II programs.

And then bang — on Saturday, Deasfernandes was in Iowa City with a fresh Iowa scholarship offer in hand. He quickly committed to the Hawkeyes.

As luck would have it, Parker was the featured guest Wednesday on our Hawk Central radio show in Des Moines. Although he cannot discuss specifics about unsigned high-school prospects, he did share insight into how he uncovers recruiting gems that others don't find.

The prime example was Detroit native Desmond King, the future Jim Thorpe Award winner and NFL all-pro, leading up to signing day in 2013. Parker also famously stashed Ohio two-star prospect Micah Hyde (another future all-pro) in the 2009 class. Recent "Phil Finds" have included safety Geno Stone in 2017, safety Kaevon Merriweather in 2018 and defensive back Daraun McKinney in 2019.

Phil Parker's 2018 Iowa defense ranked 11th nationally in fewest points allowed and was second in the Big Ten Conference.

At 56, Parker’s trained eyes don’t see a lot of differences between many 17-year-olds with four stars by their names and other less-ballyhooed players. His approach is in line with Iowa’s: being extremely selective, ignoring the star ratings and finding multisport athletes who are seen as strong character and culture fits.

Parker's track record is hard to ignore. Yet somehow he still remains largely under the national radar. He's directed a defense that's finished in the top 20 nationally in scoring each of the past four seasons. He has coached four of the conference's past seven defensive backs of the year in Hyde, King, Josh Jackson and Amani Hooker.

"What I look for is somebody who can go through our program and is going to be a hard worker, (and have) a good demeanor about themselves who likes the game of football,” Parker said. "(And) who is going to give you great effort."

Those are generalities. Good ones, for sure.

But how, in this day and age, is he able to identify these future stars when seemingly nobody else can?

It helps to have long-standing Rust Belt connections that date to Parker’s time at Michigan State and also to his 11 years as an assistant at Toledo.

“They kind of know who I am, and sometimes (coaches say), 'This is a guy for Iowa,'" said Parker, who was himself a lightly recruited prospect in the early 1980s. “I think they’ve known me long enough that they know who I’m looking for.”

We asked about Merriweather, who is in line to be Iowa’s starting free safety this fall as a true sophomore. Merriweather held one Division I scholarship offer out of Belleville (the same high school as Deasfernandes) — and it was a basketball offer, to Western Michigan. Yet Parker remembered seeing Merriweather train once at his previous school (Romulus, where Iowa running-back great Fred Russell once starred) and kept tracking him. Then, just before the February 2018 signing day, Parker and the Hawkeyes became Merriweather's first and only Division I football offer.

“When I talk to these kids. I try to tell them, ‘Hey, I’m recruiting you. I don’t care about your stars or anything. But I don’t need you to be blabbing everything off to everybody,'" Parker said. “I let everyone else do their own work. If they come and find you, that’s great.”

Stone is already a high-end contributor entering his true junior year. Merriweather is on a positive track. We’ll see about McKinney and, eventually, Deasfernades. But, as has been the popular chorus among Iowa fans this week when it comes to Parker's no-star and two-star finds: “In Phil we trust."

A few other tidbits from our radio interview worth mentioning ...

Iowa’s “cash” position in Parker’s 4-2-5 defense will likely be a cornerback this season, a departure from a safety type in Hooker. D.J. Johnson, Michael Ojemudia and Matt Hankins are in cash contention, but it was interesting to hear Parker also mention Dane Belton, a true freshman from Tampa, Florida.

Parker said Belton (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) “is a guy who’s more like Amani Hooker, so that’s a place where he might start off. I see a lot of similarities in the type of player they are. I’m not saying he’s going to break the starting lineup or anything, but that might be a position he could do it.”

Speaking of newcomers, Parker sees new graduate-transfer defensive lineman Zach VanValkenburg (6-4, 270) giving Iowa instant depth as a pass-rushing end but would consider sprinkling him inside to tackle. This is much like how the Hawkeyes used departed Sam Brincks.

Parker said Iowa’s blitz frequency is far less than 20%. He understands that fans would like to see more blitzes, but he’s all about limiting risk and big plays. Ill-timed blitzes can lead to receivers or backs running in open space.

“You’re not going to see me blitzing when they’re backed up to the 20,” he said. “The closer you get to midfield … and inside the red zone, the liabilities are a lot easier down there.”

Still, Iowa’s 35 sacks a year ago was the program’s most since racking up 40 in 2002. Parker pointed out a fact about defensive ends A.J. Epenesa and Chauncey Golston (with a combined 25½ tackles for loss as backups a year ago) that might go underappreciated.

“They’re the guys that can catch the quarterbacks,” he said. “A lot of guys can rush the quarterback. But there’s not a lot of guys that can catch the quarterback."

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.