Leistikow: The importance of Keagan Johnson's signing to Iowa football's 2021 class
Even though his father won two national championships with Nebraska in the mid-1990s, Keagan Johnson fell in love with the University of Iowa.
The interest began as a high school sophomore, when Iowa assistant coach LeVar Woods showed up at one of his track meets. By early May of his junior year at Bellevue West, the prolific wide receiver from suburban Omaha extended a verbal commitment to the Hawkeyes.
One month later, though, racial-bias allegations rocked the Iowa football program — causing the removal of strength and conditioning coach Chris Doyle, an investigation into some former players’ claims of disparities … and serious questions from Clester Johnson and his Iowa-committed son.
“There was a lot of information and a lot of different things being said,” Keagan Johnson said Wednesday in an interview with the Register. “I didn’t want to rush into any decisions. I wanted to hear from the coaches first. I had questions for them, and my dad did, too.”
Johnson came away impressed at the candid nature of the ensuing conversations. He heard from Woods, wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz and director of recruiting Tyler Barnes almost daily. He and his father got assurances from head coach Kirk Ferentz, too.
“It wasn’t just one. It was all of them,” Johnson said. "(They) all let me know they really wanted me and prioritized me.”
And yes, other programs began to buzz his phone, wondering if he was still solid with Iowa.
Johnson’s response, in a nutshell: No thanks, I’m still a Hawkeye.
“They didn’t sugar-coat anything. I think that’s a big testament to their character,” Johnson said. “That really stood out to us. I know that the whole coaching staff and especially coach Ferentz is doing the right things, taking the right steps to better the program and (address) some of those problems that came up.”
Johnson’s story is an important one. He was one of 17 prospects who had committed to Iowa in June when everything started going down; 16 stayed true to their verbal pledge by signing a letter of intent with Iowa on Wednesday, the lone exception being a defensive back from Florida.
Ferentz justifiably felt validated during his afternoon signing-day news conference. He had opened the (figurative) door to prospects, and his staff faced difficult questions head-on. Prospects were encouraged to talk to current players, and they did.
And, by and large, they stuck with Iowa for the same reasons they committed to Iowa.
“Despite some rumors, we have a pretty solid program here, a lot of good people, coaches, players,” said Ferentz, No. 4 on the all-time wins list for Big Ten Conference coaches and 53-19 over the past six seasons. “It's been that way a while. I'm really proud of that.”
To accentuate his point, Ferentz referenced interactions he’s had with Clester Johnson, a Huskers wingback on the 1994 and 1995 national-championship teams.
“I will tell you this, he has a deep appreciation of how things work on a football team, the level of commitment that's necessary, the work that has to go into it academically, football-wise, socially,” Ferentz said. “I think as much as anything … that's he's approving of (Keagan) coming here, I think that really speaks volumes.”
The Johnson signing is important on multiple levels, and not just because he spurned his home-state Huskers.
Johnson (6-foot-1, 205 pounds) is the first out-of-state Rivals four-star wide receiver to sign with the Hawkeyes in the Kirk Ferentz era.
Barnes said he’s seen the stigma that Iowa is unattractive to wide receivers diminish in this cycle. The 49-24 rout of USC in the 2019 Holiday Bowl served as a selling point for recruits that if the receivers are dynamic enough, Brian Ferentz will use them in creative ways.
Johnson recalled being impressed on his first visit to Iowa, spending 30 minutes going over film and statistics in Copeland's office.
“He showed me how much the receivers are a big part of the offense,” Johnson said. “You’re seeing it with Brandon (Smith) and Ihmir (Smith-Marsette).
“I had heard all along that Iowa’s not a good place for receivers, but coach Copeland has really changed that narrative around.”
It stands out in Iowa’s class (so far) that three of the 17 signees are wide receivers.
Johnson, arguably the top player in the state of Nebraska, has the skill set to play all three receiver positions but most naturally fits to succeed Smith-Marsette at the “Z” and could be an instant contributor.
Arland Bruce IV (5-10, 195) is what Barnes called a “Swiss army knife” playmaker and producer. He was a sensational addition to state champion Ankeny (by way of Olathe, Kansas) and fits nicely as a slot receiver. He and Johnson are enrolling at Iowa in January and will be roommates.
And Brody Brecht (6-4, 205) of Ankeny is a classic “X” outside receiver, like Smith has been. As Barnes pointed out, skill players in Iowa “don’t grow on trees,” but Brecht is a unique multi-sport talent who also plans to play baseball for Rick Heller.
You can see how the trio could fit nicely together.
All told, this Iowa class — the one assembled under the cloud of COVID-19 and a racial-bias investigation — produced five Rivals four-star players, the program’s highest total since 2007: Johnson, offensive linemen Connor Colby, David Davidkov and Beau Stephens, and linebacker Justice Sullivan.
For perspective, Iowa had a total of three four-star commitments in the four classes from 2013-16 (Jay Scheel, Tyler Wiegers and James Daniels).
And now, the Hawkeyes are even closing deals with big-time receivers.
"Just being open and honest and having those hard conversations," Barnes said, "went a long way with keeping this class intact."
Ferentz, who has been a little more snarky with his remarks this season, added one more Wednesday. Maybe this was his way of spiking the ball in the end zone alongside the 2021 class, near the conclusion of what’s been an exhausting year.
“A lot of coaches say a lot of stuff. Backing it up is a whole different story,” Ferentz said. “We back it up really well here. I think that's one thing we're really proud of. Twenty-two years, we back it up.
“You may not like what we say, but we back it up.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.
Iowa’s 17 Class of 2021 early signees (sorted by position)
QB Joey Labas (6-4, 200), Brecksville, Ohio (Brecksville-Broadview Heights H.S.)
WR Brody Brecht (6-4, 205), Ankeny (Ankeny H.S.)
WR Arland Bruce IV (5-10, 195), Olathe, Kan. (Ankeny H.S.)
WR Keagan Johnson (6-1, 190), Bellevue, Neb. (Bellevue West H.S.)
OL Connor Colby (6-6, 295), Cedar Rapids (Kennedy H.S.)
OL David Davidkov (6-6, 295), Glenview, Ill. (New Trier H.S.)
OL Gennings Dunker (6-5, 290), Lena, Ill. (Lena-Winslow H.S.)
OL Beau Stephens (6-6, 300), Blue Springs, Mo. (Blue Springs H.S.)
DL Jeff Bowie (6-5, 245), West Branch (West Branch H.S.)
DL Griffin Liddle (6-3, 275), Bettendorf (Bettendorf H.S.)
DL Max Llewellyn (6-5, 245), Urbandale (Urbandale H.S.)
DL Jeremiah Pittman (6-3, 265), Palatine, Ill. (St. Viator H.S.)
LB Jaden Harrell (6-2, 230), Urbandale (Urbandale H.S.)
LB Karson Sharar (6-2, 200), Iowa Falls (Iowa Falls-Alden H.S.)
LB Justice Sullivan (6-2, 225), Eden Prairie, Minn. (Eden Prairie H.S.)
LB Zach Twedt (6-3, 220), Story City (Roland-Story H.S.)
DB Cooper DeJean (6-1, 205), Odebolt (OA-BCIG H.S.)