Kirk Ferentz often opted for the patient and prudent path during his first 17 years on college football’s recruiting trail.
It was an approach that enabled Iowa to find emerging prospects that those in the fast lane had missed, a strategy that meshed well with the developmental philosophy of Ferentz’s program. It helped the Hawkeyes uncover future pros Bob Sanders, Chad Greenway, Brandon Myers, Ricky Stanzi and many others that fueled Iowa’s success.
But over time, it also became the road less traveled and the Hawkeyes recognized a growing national trend: Most of the blue-chip athletes were picking schools before the first snap of their senior seasons.
Ferentz gradually changed lanes. During an eight-year stretch beginning in 2003, Iowa signed 44 players who committed to the program prior to Sept. 1 of their senior seasons. Over the course of the subsequent six years, the Hawkeyes landed 71 players who pledged to Iowa before the end of August.
This year, though, was New Kirk in the recruiting fast lane with the pedal pressed to the floor.
The Hawkeyes picked up 23 commitments – all but two of available spots for their 2016 recruiting class – before kicking off their 12-2 season.
“Overall, it was a positive,” Rivals.com Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt said. “You really have to do it in this day and age to compete. If you wait too long, you’re going to be behind. Purdue waits too long, as one example, and they’re just not recruiting at the same level as the rest of the Big Ten right now.
“Now had Iowa had some more space left in this 2016 class with the year that they had, could they have picked up some more higher-level guys? Possibly. It’s always a balancing act that you have to play there. If you wait too long, you’re going to miss out. But if you go too early, you’re not going to get a full picture, guys may not develop to the level you expected them to. In general, overall, when I look at Iowa’s class I think they did very well.”
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Helmholdt and other analysts watched Iowa’s recruiting metamorphosis with curiosity. They wondered whether the Hawkeyes would look back months later and feel they made the right moves or if they’d have buyer’s remorse in February.
“I think it worked extremely well,” Scout.com analyst Allen Trieu said. “The issue with starting earlier is you don’t get as much time to evaluate, so maybe you miss more than you did in the past. But I think you have to do that because that’s how recruiting works now and they showed you can still pick up a Shaun Beyer (the all-state tight end from Cedar Rapids Kennedy who committed to Iowa in November) later in the season. There’s still room to do that. But I think they were on the right guys (early).
“I think their job would’ve been much, much harder if they had taken the traditional-timing approach to this class.”
The best early finds for the Hawkeyes:
Defensive linemen Cedrick Lattimore
A segment of Iowa fandom peered at Lattimore’s scholarship list in May and grumbled. The Hawkeyes had beaten six Mid-American Conference schools and no other Power 5 conference programs to land a commitment from the 6-foot-5, 265-pound defensive end from Detroit East Village High School.
But Lattimore’s recruiting profile and his list of suitors has grown substantially in the eight months since he gave the Hawkeyes his pledge. Scout.com recently moved him up to four-star status and Michigan State came in with an offer last month.
“He plays against pretty good competition,” Trieu said. “He goes against Cass Tech and King, which have tons of Division I kids. Last year was his first year of taking football seriously. He was more of a basketball kid the seasons before that. I think you saw the development this offseason with him really starting to focus more on football and realizing that’s his future.”
Lattimore told the Register the Spartans “came in a little too late” to break his bond with the Hawkeyes.
“He’s a guy a lot of teams tried to come in on late and steal him away,” Helmholdt said. “That’s one where they were early and he developed into a pretty highly regarded prospect.”
Quarterback Nathan Stanley
Scout.com recently elevated the charter member of Iowa’s 2016 recruiting class to four-star status and ranked Stanley the 14th-best senior quarterback nationally.
“He’s very athletic, he has good size, he can make all the throws on the field, but what might get overlooked is when we got to see him play this year he also played defensive back and he was really physical and tough and came up and hit and tackled, which I don’t know that I have another quarterback in the Midwest that’s going to a Power 5 school that did that,” Trieu said. “Beyond the obvious physical tools, I think you have a very smart, tough, physical player as well.”
Stanley’s recent bump in the rankings coincided with Wisconsin’s late push to keep the 6-4, 205-pound quarterback from leaving his home state. The senior from Menomonie High School committed to Iowa in November of 2014 when he turned down Paul Chryst’s offer from Pittsburgh. Chryst is taking another shot now as the head coach of the Badgers.
“The fact (the Hawkeyes) were on him early was huge,” Trieu said. “The more Wisconsin saw of him the more they said we may have to go back in on this kid. If you put Iowa on equal footing timing-wise with Wisconsin on a kid in Wisconsin, you reduce Iowa’s chances of getting the kid.”
Running back Toren Young
The Hawkeyes went deeper into the Badgers’ backyard to recruit Young, who grew up just a few miles from Camp Randall Stadium.
Iowa was first in line to offer the 5-11, 205-pound running back and Young committed last January. He logged 304 carries as a senior and piled up 2,569 yards rushing and ran for 28 touchdowns as a senior, doubling his yardage total from the previous season.
Rivals.com moved Young up from two-star status to a mid-three-star rating after the season.
“Every year he’s gotten better and better for us,” said Brandon Beckwith, who coached Young at Monona Grove High School. “He’s the whole package. He’s a downhill runner, but he’s breaking longer runs. When he gets into space, he’s accelerating in and out of breaks and he’s beating guys. He still loves to run guys over – maybe too much – and he’ll learn at the next level, instead of trying to be so physical.
“Overall, he’s become the whole package. At school, he’s become a leader. His core GPA this quarter was a 3.9. He was nominated by his teachers and he’s going to receive an outstanding leadership award. … He’s turned into the guy you really want to form your team around.”
Safety Amani Hooker
Hooker’s senior highlight reel is a confluence of spectacular interceptions, teeth-rattling hits and electrifying plays on offense. In fact, there’s one instance where Hooker throws a touchdown pass and delivers a key block on the same play.
The 6-1, 200-pound defensive back from Park Center High School near Minneapolis set a school record with 11 interceptions as a senior - he returned five for touchdowns - and became one of the fastest-rising safety prospects in the country.
“He started the season and he was probably in the 80s at his position rank and now he’s 46,” Trieu said. “We loved what he did as a senior. Big-time playmaker. Some defensive backs seem to have that knack for jumping routes and he always seemed to be around the ball, and by and large when he intercepted it he also got yardage after it.
“Given that and given his size, he’s going to come in as a pretty good-sized kid. He’s a candidate to play early because he’s got all the tools you look for in a guy who can compete at the college level right away. When you talk about which Iowa commits had the best senior seasons, he’s got to be among the first few names that comes up.”