Recruiting guru Tom Lemming was thumbing through surveys from top high school football prospects in the heart of SEC territory on Tuesday when he discovered an unusual trend.
Iowa kept popping up in the section where Lemming asks players to list their 10 favorite schools. The Hawkeyes kept surfacing on questionnaires from recruits in Alabama and Tennessee.
“You never saw them mentioned in Alabama or Tennessee before,” Lemming said. “I think that’s a real good sign. And when you get to the Midwest and Iowa is listed on almost everyone’s questionnaire.
"When you talk about the top 300 guys (nationally), very few of them had Iowa listed in their top 10 (in recent years). Now, there’s a good number of them. Not that they’re going to get all these kids, but that they’re on these questionnaires in the top 10 means something.”
There’s a recruiting buzz surrounding the Hawkeyes now that hasn’t been this loud in a decade.
The Monday night commitment of prized Texas prep running back Eno Benjamin took the decibel level up another notch and pushed Iowa’s 2017 class up to 12th in the Rivals.com recruiting standings. The Hawkeyes haven’t finished in this realm since 2005, when they rode a three-year wave of on-field momentum to a No. 11 finish on Signing Day.
A limited scholarship pool will likely prevent Iowa from matching or topping its best recruiting finish under coach Kirk Ferentz. The Hawkeyes, with nine commitments, have already filled roughly half their allotments for 2017 and other programs will likely pass Iowa in the standings solely on the power of numbers.
But with Benjamin and defensive end A.J. Epenesa — ranked by 247 Sports as the No. 3 player nationally in the 2017 class — already on board, Iowa’s class has the type of headline appeal it hasn’t had since 2005, when five of Rivals.com’s top 100 prospects signed with the Hawkeyes.
“This class has the buzz of ’05,” HawkeyeReport.com publisher Tom Kakert said. “It’s not going to have seven guys at the Army All-American game, but it feels like it could be their best class since then in terms of rankings maybe.”
Ferentz’s most highly acclaimed class began to take shape during the summer of 2004. The Hawkeyes had just one commitment at this point 12 years ago: Alex Kanellis, a four-star defensive end from Iowa City West.
The class picked up steam in mid-June when Iowa landed four-star quarterback Jake Christensen, coveted receivers Marcus Wilson and Trey Stross and offensive lineman Kyle Calloway in a three-day span. The big boon occurred three weeks before Signing Day when Illinois natives Dan Doering, Tony Moeaki, Dace Richardson and Ryan Bain, all four- or five-star prospects, announced their plans to join the Hawkeyes on national television during the Army All-American Bowl.
“When it pertains to Iowa specifically, that momentum probably has a bigger impact than, say, an Ohio State or Alabama, where they’re more accustomed to getting larger-(profile) recruits,” said Rafael Eubanks, a four-star center who signed with Iowa in 2005. “The biggest thing for me, in my class, we had a lot of offensive linemen coming in. For me, already having some of those relationships and going on my visit with a lot of those same guys, it felt like something we could do together by bringing our talents to Iowa and looking ahead to the future.”
The latest surge has been fueled by Iowa’s record-setting 2015 season and its immaculate new indoor facility. The Hawkeyes have momentum again in recruiting, and there’s more value in that than ever before, Lemming said.
“It is worth something, mainly because of social media now,” he said. “Everybody knows (Epenesa and Benjamin) are two big names nationally, so the other big names start thinking, ‘Hey, if it’s good enough for these two guys I’ve got to at least give it a shot and look at it.’ If you get a personality like Benjamin who’s out on Twitter a lot, I think it creates a buzz.”