Leistikow: The significance of Xavier Nwankpa's commitment to Iowa football
In the 23-year Kirk Ferentz era, there has never been a recruiting victory like this for Iowa football.
On Wednesday, Southeast Polk senior defensive back Xavier Nwankpa announced his choice of Iowa over finalists Ohio State and Notre Dame, thus becoming the highest-ranked Rivals.com recruit (No. 20 in the Class of 2022) ever to pick the Hawkeyes.
Some thoughts that spring to mind on this historic day …
If Iowa wants to win big-stage postseason games, it needs more talent like this.
That was apparent in Saturday’s league championship game loss to Michigan, especially watching Aidan Hutchinson manhandle Iowa’s three- and four-star offensive linemen. And while one player can’t make as big a difference in football as compared to basketball, acquiring an athlete of Nwankpa’s level is an accomplishment for even the elites. According to Rivals, Nwankpa is just the third five-star prospect in his class to pledge to a Big Ten school. Ohio State has one. Michigan has one. And now Iowa has its first five-star since A.J. Epenesa (ranked No. 30 overall in the Class of 2017).
But Epenesa’s recruitment was way different than this. Epenesa was always going to be a Hawkeye, with his father a former player in Iowa City. He committed early in the process and was actually a four-star defensive end at the time, only getting that five-star distinction later.
Nwankpa, whose father ran track at Iowa State, has had everyone in the country chasing him for the past year and didn’t have a predetermined favorite. The safety’s first offer came from Nebraska prior to his sophomore year, 29 months ago. Iowa was his third offer, in October of 2019, and Notre Dame was his fourth. The following spring, Michigan jumped in. By the summer of 2020, Oklahoma and Ohio State had offered. Clemson and Alabama would follow. Talk about a who’s who of college football.
Yet Iowa stayed in the fight and ... won the battle. Nwankpa told Iowa coaches of his intent on Monday night, then made it public Wednesday afternoon.
Iowa’s switch to the 4-2-5 defense set the stage for this recruiting win.
Back in the middle of Iowa's 2018 season, defensive coordinator Phil Parker and linebackers coach Seth Wallace made the move out of their base 4-3 and created a new position on defense they call “cash,” a fifth defensive back instead of a third linebacker. The ideal player for that position is someone with good size who can throw his weight around in the run game while also being able to play excellent man-to-man pass coverage. Amani Hooker was the first to play that position, and he’s still in the NFL. Dane Belton holds that role now and was recently named first-team all-Big Ten.
Nwankpa (6-foot-2, 190 pounds) is being recruited at the “cash” position and is that type of hybrid player that today’s NFL covets. If Belton turns pro after the Citrus Bowl (a distinct possibility), Nwankpa could have a clear path to play as a true freshman. And, by all accounts, he's talented enough to do so. Iowa’s 4-2-5 and the developmental track record of Parker have made the Hawkeyes an attractive landing spot for defensive-back prospects.
This commitment speaks volumes about Iowa's handling of racial-disparity issues.
The June 2020 tumult that rocked the Iowa football program and led to the removal of strength coach Chris Doyle occurred in the middle of Nwankpa's recruitment. The subsequent racial-bias investigation found that "the program’s rules perpetuated racial or cultural biases and diminished the value of cultural diversity."
Throughout Iowa's 10-3 season, Ferentz has complimented his players for their love for one another. And much like with the recruitment of four-star wide receiver Keagan Johnson in the Class of 2021, Iowa coaches answered Nwankpa's questions about the team's culture head-on ... and to his satisfaction, to the point the Hawkeyes were able to rally past Notre Dame and Ohio State.
Nwankpa won’t be a high-maintenance five-star recruit.
Coaches often praised Epenesa as having a “two-star attitude” at Iowa, meaning he worked as hard as anyone else and didn’t ride his talent to the playing field. From everything said and written about Nwankpa, he fits the same mold. He's a respectful young man (turned 18 Wednesday) on and off the field.
Somebody with strong Southeast Polk ties sent me this text message about Nwankpa on Wednesday: “Kids look up to him, and he doesn’t look down on them.”
Iowa loves getting those high-character guys, regardless of star level. It just so happens Nwankpa comes with five stars. And next Wednesday, he’ll officially sign with the Hawkeyes.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.