Leistikow: Operation Snowball key to Hawks' recruiting surge

Chad Leistikow

We won't see the payoff of Iowa’s second straight June recruiting surge for a while.

But today, we can at least say this much about the Hawkeye football program: Operation Snowball is working.

From Sunday to Monday afternoon, four high school players in 24 hours verbally committed to play for Iowa, boosting the Class of 2017’s size by 40 percent, from 10 to 14 members.

Two Dallas-area prospects joined the fold Monday, with wide receiver Gavin Holmes and defensive back Matt Hankins announcing their intentions on Twitter with the hashtag #Swarm17. Their commitments followed Sunday’s pledges from Illinois cornerback Camron Harrell and Mississippi receiver Brandon Smith.

This has a similar feel to the momentum that first helped refurbish Iowa football’s brand in June 2015, when a staggering 16 commitments were made in 22 days. Before that surge, the program and the fan base seemed lifeless after a failed 7-6 season.

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz is shown in the Hawkeyes' new weight room last summer. The new football building has been a well-received recruiting tool ... though winning (12-2) has, too.

Suddenly, Iowa coaches had athletes excited about joining its program. (A shiny new building certainly helped.)

And, lo and behold, fans were excited about the excitement.

As then-recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace told me at the time of Iowa's more aggressive recruiting approach that saw commitments beget commitments: “It's like a snowball, once you get it going.”

And if Operation Snowball 2017 (my name, not Iowa's) is in full effect, give credit first to four/five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa for giving it the first shove — and to four-star running back Eno Benjamin for keeping it rolling.

Hawkeyes pick up another defensive back, receiver Monday

Epenesa’s commitment on Jan. 17, the fourth in the class and first following a historic 12-2 season, sent a signal to other recruits that Iowa could be a player against some of college football’s heaviest hitters. Benjamin’s pledge three months later got the ball rolling in Texas, which saw quarterback Peyton Mansell hop aboard last week to be followed up Monday by Holmes and Hankins.

Shortly after Holmes’ commitment, Iowa running back commit Ivory Kelly-Martin tweeted, “congrats Bro! We got a ridiculous class! #Swarm17”

And after getting a congratulatory tweet from Benjamin, who has become an aggressive Hawkeye advocate since his commitment, Holmes replied, “thanks bro... we doing something special.”

A four-star safety (per 247sports) in the Class of 2018 noticed. Cameron Jones of Euless, Texas, tweeted after Holmes’ commitment, “Man iowa up to something.”

That’s the snowball effect.


That’s the Hawkeye program turning heads, especially in Texas. As of Monday afternoon, Iowa’s Class of 2017 national ranking was 16th by, 19th by and 22nd by

Those are the kinds of numbers not typically associated with Hawkeye's recruiting efforts. The 2015 class finished in the high-50s, and the 2016 class was around 40th. This group has the makings of Iowa's best class since 2005.

As the past week has shown, Iowa is using the Class of 2016 blueprint. Except the same approach is netting better talent.

More four star-types are coming through the front door. Many are taking second looks.

And — by the way — the Iowa snowball is still rolling in the Texas heat.

Longhorns commitment Kobe Boyce, a cornerback, and four-star receiver Camron Buckley are giving the Hawkeyes heavy consideration.

After Hankins committed, he told, “We all know each other really well, and we’re making it a Texas movement.”

Another benefit of creating a June surge: Iowa coaches can shift the majority of their recruiting efforts in the 7-8 months until National Signing Day on keeping Class of 2017 prospects rather than landing them. (Of the 16 players that committed last June, only receiver Frank Darby didn't sign in February.)

There’s no guarantee how many of Iowa's #Swarm17 commitments will pan out.

But there's no doubt that there's momentum surrounding Iowa football. And potential recruits are taking notice.

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.