How Iowa assembled a top-10 team with unheralded recruits

Andy Hamilton
Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz celebrates with Jordan Canzeri after a touchdown against Illinois on Oct. 10 at Kinnick Stadium. Canzeri was a last-minute addition to Iowa’s 2011 class.

Take a dive into the recruiting data pool and look through the names, numbers and star ratings for a while.

Study the talent collection of teams that now occupy property in college football’s top 10. Check out the roster composition of each program.

When you come up for air, it’s worth asking a couple questions: How did Iowa wind up here? How did the Hawkeyes, with eight four-star prospects on their entire roster, surface in the same neighborhood as Alabama and the 50 four- and five-star players that appear just on its depth chart?

It’s easy to pass recruiting rankings off as just fodder for water cooler discussions. But they carry some relevance.

College football’s last dozen or so national championship teams were built with star-lined foundations. The teams that win each February on signing day typically also win for years to come on fall Saturdays.

But it’s no perfect science and there are exceptions. Programs like TCU, Baylor and Iowa have evened the playing field with coaches who uncovered and developed hidden gems that fit their brand of football.

TCU rarely beats Texas on the recruiting trail, but it thumped the Longhorns 50-7 this year behind Heisman Trophy candidate Trevone Boykin, who picked the Horned Frogs over UTEP. Art Briles assembled the most prolific offense in the sport at Baylor primarily with a collection of two- and three-star recruits.

Iowa ranks third in college football in rushing defense and starts six players on that side of the ball who had no other Power 5 conference offers. Four of those guys didn’t even have another FBS offer.

“There’s so many factors in (finding unheralded gems),” national analyst Mike Farrell said. “A lot of coaches will tell you sometimes you just get lucky. You just get lucky getting a kid nobody else wanted and he just blossoms at your school.”

But Iowa has been doing this far too long to chalk it up to merely good fortune. Bob Sanders, Dallas Clark, Chad Greenway and Marshal Yanda arrived in Iowa City years ago with a little to no recruiting fanfare. They come back now as past and present NFL All-Pros.

“No one develops (players) better than Iowa,” veteran recruiting guru Tom Lemming said. “Consistently, no one has done it better over the last 15 years than (Iowa coach Kirk) Ferentz has.”

This Iowa team underlines Lemming’s point.

The Recruiting Trail with Andy Hamilton

Although offensive linemen Austin Blythe, Jordan Walsh and James Daniels left high school with four-star status, the Hawkeyes have handed the responsibility of protecting quarterback C.J. Beathard’s blind side to walk-ons Boone Myers and Cole Croston. Iowa starts two walk-ons; the other nine teams in the AP top 10 start four, combined.

The Big Ten trumpeted the play of Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley when the running backs earned league offensive player of the week honors on the heels of consecutive 200-yard rushing performances.

But there were no bold-type headlines when either committed to the Hawkeyes.

Canzeri was a last-minute addition to Iowa’s 2011 class after the sudden departure of three running backs left the Hawkeyes in a bind. His highlight DVD landed on Ferentz’s desk a couple weeks before signing day, leaving the Iowa coach to wonder why the Troy, N.Y., native’s list of schools included Villanova and little else at the time.

“He had good high school film, but he played in one of the worst competition areas you could find,” Farrell said. “He was a guy who looked the part of an FCS kid. He didn’t have tremendous high-end speed, had OK size and just wasn’t a guy who struck me. (I thought) nobody’s going to go on this kid FBS-wise. And when Iowa did, I was stunned. He’s obviously been extremely important to what they do.”

So, too, has Wadley, a two-star recruit in 2013 from New Jersey.

“He went to a school that didn’t produce anybody — like ever,” Farrell said. “It’s one of those things where we had him as a running back but projected him as a guy who might switch positions and might be better as a slot receiver or possibly as a safety. But we didn’t really see him as an impact guy.”

Before he was an emerging talent for Iowa, running back Akrum Wadley, center, was a lightly recruited athlete.

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In defense of recruiting analysts, it’s not as if Canzeri and Wadley had a herd of college coaches tracking their progress in high school. For that matter, neither did most of the starters on defense that’s gone from under-recruited to overpowering.

It’s a group that illustrates one of the Iowa greatest recruiting strengths: open-mindedness.

Ferentz and his staff have established a willingness to trust instinct and steer away from the rest of the Power 5 pack, venturing into territories off the well-worn recruiting path.

They went into tiny towns with eight-player high school programs and snagged defensive linemen Nathan Bazata, Nate Meier and Drew Ott. They went after Bazata, Meier, Parker Hesse and Josey Jewell when no other FBS programs came in with scholarship offers.

They took Hesse, a high school quarterback, and turned him into a 240-pound defensive end. They transformed Jewell, a 190-pound prep running back, into a 230-pound linebacker. They converted receiver Greg Mabin to cornerback and pictured Ben Niemann as a linebacker when everyone else saw him as a receiver.

Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann has blossomed into a top defender despite being lightly recruited.

“Other people want to see that five-star now,” said Joe Ryan, who coached Niemann at Sycamore (Ill.) High School. “What coach Ferentz and his staff do, they can see a really good college player eventually. That’s where they get their guys. They do their homework and they can project out pretty well.”

Three years ago, the Hawkeyes extended a late scholarship offer to Desmond King and pried the Michigan high school career interception leader away from a commitment to Ball State. The late-January addition to the Iowa class hardly registered on the national recruiting seismograph at the time.

But King became a starter during the second week of his true freshman season, earned all-Big Ten honors last year and entered Saturday tied for second in major college football with six interceptions.

Farrell recently ranked the junior cornerback the No. 22 player on his midseason list of the top players in the country. If Rivals handed out star ratings to college players, the three-star prospect might be a five-star now.

“It’s fair to say we didn’t project him to be as effective as he has been at the college level,” Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt said. “He was a little bit short. He wasn’t the fastest guy for the cornerback position. He was a stocky, well-built kid, but he wasn’t 6-1 with long arms. He wasn’t a 4.3 guy. He just has that playmaking ability in him and we saw some of it.

“He certainly wasn’t under-evaluated, but we just didn’t project him to have the success he’s had, even though we definitely projected him as a Big Ten-caliber player. But multiple-time all-conference? Potential first-round draft pick-type? No, we didn’t have him that high.”

LSU running back Leonard Fournette, right, was one of the most coveted prospects in the nation in 2014.

Breakdown of offensive, defensive starters for teams in the Associated Press top 10

No. 1 Ohio State (top 100 recruits — 10; five-stars — 3; four-stars — 15; three-stars — 4; two-stars — 0; walk-ons — 0)

Ohio State rarely strays far from the lead pack in recruiting, and the Buckeyes haven’t finished outside the top 10 in rankings since Urban Meyer’s 2012 arrival. His best haul during that stretch came in 2013, when Ohio State finished with the No. 2 class. That group included quarterback J.T. Barrett, running back Ezekiel Elliott, defensive ends Joey Bosa and Tyquan Lewis, cornerback Eli Apple and safety Vonn Bell, all four- and five-star prospects.

No. 2 Baylor (top 100 recruits — 1; five-stars — 0; four-stars — 5; three-stars — 14; two-stars — 4; walk-ons — 0)

With a new $266 million stadium, one of the most talent-rich backyards in the country and a program amid its most successful five-year stretch in school history, you might expect Baylor to be a recruiting empire in construction. But the Bears, who have signed 97 Texans in the last five years, have yet to crack the top 30 in the final Rivals recruiting rankings under coach Art Briles. The last five classes averaged a 40th-place finish on the Rivals list.

No. 3 Clemson (top 100 recruits — 8; five-stars — 2; four-stars — 13, three-stars — 6; two-stars — 1, walk-ons — 1)

Here’s the list of programs that have finished with top-15 recruiting classes in each of the last five years: Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, Georgia, Ohio State, Oklahoma, USC and Clemson. The Tigers have signed eight five-star prospects and 41 four-star players during that stretch. Nine of those players start for the nation’s fourth-ranked defense. Clemson’s offense is geared around the jewel of the program’s 2014 recruiting class, five-star quarterback DeShaun Watson.

No. 4 LSU (top 100 recruits — 9; five-stars — 5; four-stars — 12; three-stars — 5; two-stars — 0; walk-ons — 1)

Louisiana might produce more blue-chip prospects per capita than any other state in the country. Although LSU hasn’t put a wall around its home state, the Tigers have signed enough to stay near the top of the recruiting rankings. LSU has inked 38 four- and five-start prospects from Louisiana in the last five years, including NFL receiver Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry and Heisman candidate Leonard Fournette, widely regarded as the No. 1 recruit nationally in 2014.

No. 5 TCU (top 100 recruits — 1; five-stars — 0; four-stars — 2; three-stars — 11; two-stars — 8; walk-ons — 0)

TCU is Exhibit A for the crowd that argues recruiting rankings are overrated. During the past decade, the Horned Frogs have registered seven seasons with at least 11 victories and have averaged a No. 51 finish on the Rivals recruiting chart during that period. Heisman candidate Trevone Boykin, ranked the No. 100 player in Texas as a senior, was a three-star prospect who picked TCU over UTEP.  Leading receiver Josh Doctson didn’t have any Power 5 offers coming out of high school and had to start his career at Wyoming. Leading tackler Travin Howard picked TCU over Texas-San Antonio and No. 2 tackler Derrick Kindred was also a two-star prospect.

No. 6 Michigan State (top 100 recruits — 3; five-stars — 1; four-stars — 8; three-stars — 12; two-stars — 1; walk-ons — 1)

Michigan State has suddenly hit a new gear in recruiting after registering 32 victories since the start of the 2013 season. The Spartans went from 41st and 40th on the Rivals list in 2012 and 2013 to 22nd in each of the past two years and they’re currently hovering around the top five for 2016. Two walk-ons start on offense, but every other starter received at least a three-star rating coming out of high school.

No. 7 Alabama (top 100 recruits — 12; five-stars — 7; four-stars — 9; three-stars — 8; two-stars — 0; walk-ons — 0)

No program has loaded up the way Alabama has during the past five years — perhaps ever. The Crimson Tide finished on top of the recruiting rankings for four straight seasons before finishing second to USC in 2015. The second and third teams on the Alabama depth chart feature seven five-star players and 28 four-star players. Da’Shawn Hand was ranked by Rivals as the No. 1 player nationally in 2014.

No. 8 Stanford (top 100 recruits — 7; five-stars — 2; four-stars — 9; three-stars — 13; two-stars — 0; walk-ons — 0)

Four straight BCS bowl appearances helped the Cardinal stock this roster with talent. Four of Stanford’s last five recruiting classes have ranked in the top 25, including the 2012 class, which finished fifth in the rankings. The 2013 class finished 64th, but that was more a reflection of quantity than quality. Stanford only signed a dozen players that year and all were three- and four-star prospects. Four starters on offense were top-100 players, including running back Christian McCaffery, a Heisman candidate.

No. 9 Notre Dame (top 100 recruits — 4; five-stars — 3; four-stars — 12; three-stars — 6; two-stars — 0; walk-ons — 1)

The last five classes for the Irish have averaged an 11th-place finish, highlighted by a 24-player haul in 2013 that was topped only by Alabama and Ohio State in the Rivals rankings. Fifteen current starters for the Irish came out of high school with four- and five-star status, including left tackle Ronnie Stanley and linebacker Jaylon Smith, both projected as top-10 NFL picks, according to ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper. One guy who didn’t show up in the Rivals high school rankings: linebacker Joe Schmidt. Notre Dame’s 2014 MVP joined the program as a walk-on.

No. 10 Iowa (top 100 recruits — 0; five-stars — 0; four-stars — 4; three-stars — 11; two-stars — 6; walk-ons — 2)

The Hawkeyes are Exhibit B for the crowd that argues recruiting rankings are overrated. Iowa’s last five classes finished 30th, 43rd, 53rd, 59th and 58th in the Rivals rankings. Those rankings, however, don’t take into account a college staff’s ability to evaluate and develop, two hallmarks of the Hawkeye program. Offensive tackles Boone Myers and Cole Croston joined the program as walk-ons, defensive linemen Parker Hesse and Nate Meier and linebackers Josey Jewell and Ben Niemann, running backs Jordan Canzeri and Akrum Wadley and receiver Matt VandeBerg arrived as two-star prospects who had no other Power 5 offers.