Leistikow's 5 thoughts: The Xavier Nwankpa recruitment from Iowa football coaches' perspective

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

We’ve heard the recruiting story from Xavier Nwankpa’s point of view, how the five-star safety from Southeast Polk was blown away by the Iowa-Penn State game atmosphere. How he narrowed his final three choices to Iowa, Notre Dame and Ohio State. And how he accidentally blurted out his intent to be a Hawkeye with Kirk Ferentz and two assistant coaches over for dinner.

But what was the recruitment like from the Iowa program's point of view?

In a word, back in May … bleak.

Hawkeye coaches felt they were outside the top six at that point and didn’t feel much better after Nwankpa made an unofficial visit to Iowa City in late June. As Hawkeye recruiting followers will recall, that was a lackluster stretch for Iowa’s Class of 2022.

But Iowa was able to get Nwankpa to a practice in August, then the season opener against Indiana. Hawkeye defenders secured four turnovers in that game, including two interception-return touchdowns by eventual Big Ten defensive back of the year Riley Moss.

“It seemed like his tone and demeanor had changed a little bit,” Iowa director of recruiting Tyler Barnes said Wednesday on our “Hawk Central” radio show on KXnO in Des Moines, “just on the outlook of Iowa. That’s when he set his official visit (for Oct. 9).”

A week later, though, is when Barnes started feeling better. With little fanfare, Nwankpa and his father (a former sprinter for Iowa State’s track team) bought tickets for the Iowa-Iowa State game at Jack Trice Stadium in Ames. Nwankpa wore a Hawkeye shirt to the game and watched Iowa’s 27-17 win, fueled by four more turnovers on defense, in a top-10 showdown.

“In my mind,” Barnes said, “I didn’t want to get ahead of myself, but I was like, ‘We’ve had a real chance at this. We’re going to be in the top three, and we’ve got to figure out how to push this thing through.’”

More:Inside Iowa football's late recruiting spree on early signing day

The Iowa-Penn State atmosphere was off the charts, a top-five matchup won in thrilling fashion by the Hawkeyes with … lo and behold … four more interceptions for Iowa’s defense.

But Iowa’s coaches were in the dark on what Nwankpa would do as his announcement day — Dec. 8, his 18th birthday — drew near.

“Xavier is an incredible poker player because he doesn't give away anything, no tips to anybody,” Barnes said.

Barnes got really nervous once Notre Dame hired Marcus Freeman, the 35-year-old defensive coordinator, to replace Brian Kelly as head coach. He knew Nwankpa and Freeman were close.

Iowa’s ultimate pitch to Nwankpa?

“That you’re the type of kid that can change this program,” Barnes said. “You never want to say it’s one guy, but you can change the tide of how we’re viewed in the recruiting landscape. You can make a difference in this program more than you probably realize. Whether that resonated with his family or not, I’m not 100% sure. But it’s certainly the truth.”

And now, the rest is history. Nwankpa told Ferentz and assistants Jay Niemann and Phil Parker that night, but those coaches concealed the commitment from Barnes for nearly two days. They thought it would be funny.

“I'm the recruiting guy. (And) it's only the biggest recruit in the history of Iowa football,” Barnes said with his dry humor.

Nwankpa officially signed Wednesday and is one of at least four players in the Class of 2022 who will begin classes at Iowa in January. Defensive linemen Brian Allen Jr. and Caden Crawford and walk-on kicker Drew Stevens are the others.

Some other thoughts about this Iowa recruiting class …

Xavier Nwankpa (6-2, 190) is shown the night before Iowa's Sept. 4 season opener against Indiana, at which Nwankpa gave Iowa coaches some optimism.

'Dudes want to play with dudes.'

That is what Barnes said about the importance and impact of Nwankpa’s commitment. Iowa landed three more defensive backs in a matter of a week after Nwankpa’s commitment: Fresno’s T.J. Hall and Michigan natives Koen Entringer (who has a soccer background) and Olando Trader. We know that Parker, Iowa’s defensive coordinator, always has a few late Michigan defensive backs up his sleeve.

More:Signing Day: Meet Iowa football's 2022 recruiting class

This was a monster position of need for the Hawkeyes, and they can thank the acquisition of the No. 11 overall prospect in the Class of 2022 by 247Sports for taking them from zero DB commitments to four.

“You get that big of a recruiting win, guys are going to take notice,” Barnes said. “I don’t know if he’ll admit it, but he was doing a little recruiting behind the scenes for us even before he committed."

Nwankpa joked with Barnes on Twitter that he was "coming for your job" Wednesday. What a catch it would be if Nwankpa's influence could next influence Southeast Polk teammate Kadyn Proctor, the No. 1-ranked offensive tackle in the nation in the Class of 2023.

Kaleb Johnson joined Nwankpa at that Penn State game.

And, boy, there’s a lot to be excited about with Johnson. Iowa listed him at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds on signing day, but Barnes said Johnson measured 6-2 and a chiseled 225 pounds last weekend on an unofficial visit to Iowa that also included Nwankpa and a bunch of other targets.

“Some of the stuff he does, he's extremely fast. Really fluid for a big guy,” Barnes said of Johnson. “ … We haven't had a guy his size for some time here. It will be good to add a little size to that running back room.”

With Tyler Goodson’s departure to the NFL, there’s certainly a chance for Johnson (or fellow Class of 2022 running back Jaziun Patterson) to make an early impact next fall.

Aaron Graves deserves more than a few sentences, but …

He’s been an Iowa recruit for so long — since the summer after his freshman year at tiny Southeast Valley High School — that he has sort of been an afterthought for this class. But Graves (6-5, 275) will arrive as the most ready-made defensive lineman since at least A.J. Epenesa in 2017.

He always wanted to be a Hawkeye. He committed on the spot after receiving a scholarship offer from Ferentz and had no interest in any other schools. Fourth-year defensive line coach Kelvin Bell was quoted by the university on Wednesday as saying Graves had “the most impressive highlight tape I’ve seen since I’ve been in this role.”

Graves doesn’t have Twitter and keeps a low profile. He is praised for a motor that doesn’t quit, even playing basketball and wrestling in the same high school season.

“The lowest-maintenance recruit we’ll ever have come through here,” Barnes said. “He doesn’t need much. He doesn’t ask for much. … He would’ve had every offer in the country if he wanted it, there’s no doubt about it. He’s an exceptional kid. I feel terrible for the kids that had to play against him on Fridays.”

A few more lines about this class

Barnes noted on our radio show that quarterback signee Carson May from Jones, Oklahoma, was “criminally underrecruited.” Between May and recent 2023 four-star quarterback Marco Leinez (a dual-threat product nicknamed “Mac”) of New Jersey and the buzz surrounding 2021 signee Joey Labas, there’s a lot of excitement and variety in the future of Iowa’s QB position.

Iowa struck out on top tight-end targets in June, but that led to welcoming Wisconsin’s Addison Ostrenga and Indiana’s Cael Vanderbush. The latter, who Iowa didn’t discover until midway through his senior season at Plainfield High School, has Division I bloodlines (his father played at Michigan State). He sounds like a T.J. Hockenson starter kit.

“He’s every bit of 6-5, long arms. Really fast. Incredibly sudden. Great hands,” Barnes said. “And both of those guys are really good basketball players. You look at the history of our good tight ends here, they’ve been really good basketball players. Kind of a must for us.”

And remember how Barnes jumped on Twitter in early July to blast negative recruiting against Iowa? He regretted tweeting it, he said Wednesday, but he continues to say that Ferentz isn’t going anywhere.

“I think a couple schools that were saying some stuff knew exactly who I was talking about," he said. "We'll move on. And, you know, we got a couple of those guys. Joke’s on them.”

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.