Leistikow: What's the deal with Iowa football's recruiting slump?
Just before checking out for a three-week family vacation in late June, I told our new Hawkeyes reporter for the Register, Kennington Smith, to watch for a flurry of Iowa football commitments. Late June has in recent history been a period of recruiting momentum for the Hawkeyes, and they were hosting their top 2022 targets on the month's final weekend.
Turns out, Kennington didn't have many Hawkeye commits to write about while I was away. It is somewhat puzzling to take stock and realize Iowa has added only three new commitments for the Class of 2022 in the past five weeks — an Illinois three-star wide receiver, an Oklahoma quarterback with no other Power Five offers and a Wisconsin tight end who was previously committed to play baseball for Rick Heller.
Iowa is unquestionably in a recruiting slump. With eight commitments as of Tuesday morning and a lot of high-profile whiffs of late, the Hawkeyes were ranked No. 13 in the Big Ten (only ahead of Nebraska) and No. 57 nationally by 247Sports … and last in the Big Ten and No. 63 nationally by Rivals.
This topic has been the No. 1 question from readers this week: Why are the Hawkeyes struggling on the recruiting trail?
The answer is complicated. Here are some explanations, theories and thoughts on the matter.
Kirk Ferentz’s age (66 as of Aug. 1) is a significant factor.
We saw this issue used against Iowa toward the end of the Hayden Fry era, too. Teenagers and their parents can do the math. Class of 2022 prospects know that if they’re committing to Iowa, the No. 4 winningest Big Ten coach in history might not be in charge by the time they complete their college career. Ferentz (in his 23rd year as Iowa's head coach) is signed through the 2025 season, when he would be 70. Even if he did stay that long, that would only be four years for 2022 kids … and even less for rising juniors in the 2023 class.
Ferentz has long indicated he wouldn’t be a head coach past 70. But in an early-June interview with the Register, Ferentz said he has never been more eager for a season and feels great.
"I don’t know what I’ll feel like at 70 or 72. If I feel like this, I’ll keep going for a while," he said then. "I will say this: I’m not going to do this at age 78."
You can bet other programs are seizing on Ferentz’s age, too, particularly considering the younger head coaches in Iowa’s recruiting footprint — Minnesota's P.J. Fleck is 40; Iowa State's Matt Campbell is 41; Nebraska's Scott Frost and Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald are 46.
Ferentz is a sharp CEO. If recruiting spirals into a real problem (right now, it’s just a concern), he and Iowa athletics director Gary Barta may need to proactively address his future with either a contract extension or exit strategy/succession plan. The last thing Ferentz wants to do is leave the program in a sharp decline, as Fry did in 1998.
Generally speaking, Iowa’s roster is pretty young. That has an impact.
The Hawkeyes have recruited well in recent years. That’s a good thing. There also haven’t been many program defections of late. That’s also good. As a result, Iowa has a slew of young prospects at positions like offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, wide receiver, tight end and even quarterback that make for a narrow path to immediate (or early) playing time.
A lot of fans are wound up that Iowa State is outperforming Iowa in recruiting in this cycle. No doubt, that’s true. Iowa State has landed three in-state prospects Iowa wanted in three-star linebackers Jacob Imming and Will McLaughlin and four-star defensive lineman Hunter Deyo. But keep in mind, Iowa State's roster is in the opposite situation of Iowa’s. The 2021 Cyclones have 25 seniors, including eight that stayed for their “super-senior” year granted out of the COVID-19 pandemic. Iowa State’s Class of 2022 is 16 strong, twice the size of Iowa’s, and ranked No. 25 nationally.
The perception is that there is more early opportunity in Ames. And remember, the highest-ranked recruiting class of the Ferentz era (2005) occurred at around the same juncture as Iowa State finds itself now … with consistent on-field success and a head coach that has attracted (and reportedly turned down) NFL overtures. Recognizing the landscape helps partially explain recruiting decisions that have gone against Iowa.
Three positions are at the “concern” level, including tight end.
It was a shocking development among recruiting analysts that Iowa struck out on all of its top tight end targets. West Des Moines Valley’s Eli Raridon opted for Notre Dame. Nebraska product Micah Riley-Ducker (from the same high school as current Hawkeye Keagan Johnson) chose Auburn, and his teammate Kaden Helms (who Iowa offered) selected Oklahoma. Wisconsin's Andrew Keller chose Iowa State, another stinging decision for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa, in response, poached Addison Ostrenga from his Hawkeye baseball commitment to get its first tight-end commitment since the Class of 2020. Maybe Ostrenga (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) will turn out to be better than all of these other guys. But it’s fair to say Iowa invested a lot of resources in its top tight-end targets to come up empty at maybe its most high-profile position at the NFL level.
The fact that position coach Brian Ferentz remains a defendant in a racial-bias lawsuit doesn’t help. There are other explanations, though. Iowa has a premier every-down tight end option in third-year junior Sam LaPorta, and there remains a lot of intrigue surrounding redshirt sophomore Josiah Miamen (Class of 2019) and promising redshirt freshmen Elijah Yelverton (2020) and Luke Lachey (2020). In contrast, Iowa State and Oklahoma have two senior tight ends. Their imminent departures could be appealing for recruiting targets. Although, it should also be noted that Auburn and Notre Dame have depth chart situations similar to Iowa. It's possible Iowa rolls with Ostrenga in this class and tries again in 2023 at tight end.
The Hawkeyes are very happy to have junior Tyler Goodson as their featured running back. His recruitment from the Atlanta area was a major win in the Class of 2019. But his emergence as a true freshman has seemingly stalled out Iowa’s recruiting efforts at running back. Iowa’s only commit in the 2021 and 2022 cycles at running back is Des Moines North’s Deavin Hilson. Last week, top Iowa running back target Aidan Laughery chose in-state Illinois (and new coach Bret Bielema) over the Hawkeyes.
With Ladell Betts as new running backs coach and a well-known run-first approach on offense, it's baffling that Iowa isn't connecting with high-end talent at this position.
Iowa has zero defensive-back commitments, another oddity with Phil Parker’s mastery at coaching unheralded prospects into NFL Draft picks. It’ll be interesting to see how many current seniors (like Riley Moss, Jack Koerner and Xavior Williams) elect to return for their available COVID year in 2022.
The racial-bias fallout can’t be ignored as a possible factor.
While Iowa has done a good job making positive program changes and getting out front to address the racial disparities brought to light in June 2020, there’s no doubt it has had an impact on the Hawkeyes’ efforts. Director of recruiting Tyler Barnes alluded to negative tactics against Iowa in a cryptic July 1 tweet that said, "Recruits, if a school has to negative recruit nonstop against one of your top choices, stop and think for a second why they are wasting all that time rather than trying to show you what they are truly about."
The best way for the Hawkeye program to overcome negative recruiting is to continue to have a high rate of roster retention (and graduation) among Black players and to keep winning on the field (Iowa is 53-21 over the last six seasons and is coming off back-to-back national top-15 finishes).
It’s not exactly time to panic. The first of two signing periods doesn’t begin until Dec. 15.
Iowa is doing the right thing in exercising patience to address its Class of 2022, which was always going to be on the small side anyway. According to HawkeyeReport.com, the Hawkeyes are already at 79 of 85 scholarships filled for 2022. Certainly more spots would open up for early-NFL Draft declarations (such as Tyler Linderbaum) and any outgoing transfers, but those could be snapped up by some guys that choose to return as super seniors (Moss? Charlie Jones? Kyler Schott?). Plus, Ferentz likes to reward walk-ons who make their mark (special-teamers like Kyler Fisher and Quinn Schulte come to mind).
A silver lining of Iowa's slow start in 2022 is that it can seize an opportunity to pounce on high schoolers who break out in their senior years. That’s especially notable this year, considering many prospects had truncated or non-existent junior seasons due to the global pandemic. There are many young men poised to hit the big-time radar this fall.
And don’t forget, the NCAA granting one-time transfers with immediate eligibility offers the Hawkeyes a new avenue to fill needs. Iowa isn’t heavily active in the transfer portal, but it’s done well in that area in targeted spots (Jack Heflin at defensive tackle last year is a great example). Perhaps Iowa needs to consider a more aggressive portal approach if 2022 high school efforts continue to fizzle.
Lastly, Iowa coaches have been known to successfully flip players who had verbally committed to other schools if they see an opening. Current quarterback Spencer Petras was an Oregon State commit until flipping to the Hawkeyes in December 2017. Desmond King, Geno Stone and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are prime examples of flips near signing day that worked out well for the Hawkeyes.
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 Class of 2022 verbal commitments
WR Jacob Bostick, 6-3, 170, Palatine, Illinois (Palatine H.S.)
DL Caden Crawford, 6-5, 239, Lansing, Kansas (Lansing H.S.)
OL Jack Dotzler, 6-7, 265, Waunakee, Wisconsin (Waunakee H.S.)
DL Aaron Graves, 6-5½, 260, Gowrie, Iowa (Southeast Valley H.S.)
OL Kale Krogh, 6-6, 265, Huxley, Iowa (Ballard H.S.)
QB Carson May, 6-5, 220, Jones, Oklahoma (Jones H.S.)
LB Jayden Montgomery, 5-11, 215, Green Bay, Wisconsin (Bay Port H.S.)
TE Addison Ostrenga, 6-5, 220, Sun Prairie, Wisconsin (Sun Prairie H.S.)