Iowa's football coach, after Eno Benjamin 'decommitment,' says: 'You can't lose something you never had'
For six months, Eno Benjamin was among the headliners of Iowa's 2017 recruiting class. His decommitment earlier this week has brought attention to the Hawkeyes in an entirely different way.
The acrimonious split between an old-school Iowa program and the No. 7 running back in the nation, according to Rivals.com, was dragged out of online forums and into Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz’s press conference this week. Benjamin’s visits this fall to Arizona State and Missouri clashed with the Hawkeyes coaching staff's recruiting approach.
The Hawkeyes have a long-standing policy that commits take no other college visits. Experts believe the rigid principle will leave Iowa behind in recruiting.
“It was something that was a lot more doable 10 or 15 years ago,” Rivals.com Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt told the Register. “Back then, you didn’t have kids committing during their sophomore year of high school. Many teams used to go into the summer before senior years and didn’t have any recruits.
“It’s a totally different recruiting landscape right now.”
Ferentz stood by the program’s policy on Wednesday. It has retained Iowa’s top 2017 recruit in defensive end A.J. Epenesa from Edwardsville, Ill., and five other Texas players as of Thursday afternoon.
But Hawkeye Report publisher Tom Kakert thinks change is coming. Eventually.
“I don’t think short-term they’re going to change anything,” Kakert said. “Kirk is married to this policy for the time-being.
“But two things Iowa really needs to re-evaluate: They need to find ways to get more kids on campus for the game day experience during the season. Kids love it. And secondly, they’ve got to find middle-ground on visits instead of this hard line. I know they got frustrated with it, but in the current format of recruiting, it’s just tough to do.”
Kakert says Iowa’s coaching staff encourages prospects to go on other visits and do their due diligence of seeing colleges before they commit.
However, high school players cannot make official visits until the start of their senior years. And Iowa received 15 of its 16 current commitments before the start of the 2016-17 school year.
“It’s different because of the way the process has sped up so much,” Kakert said. “Five years ago, the vast majority of kids would wait until November or December, after high school football. Now, most the work is done by May, June and July.”
Ferentz advocates an early signing period for recruiting, which has been proposed. That would help the Hawkeyes seal up those pre-senior year commitments, to a large extent.
But in the current landscape, official visits are becoming Iowa’s bugaboo.
Benjamin took a pair of visits that became problematic and reportedly led to the split. Elite cornerback Chevin Calloway remains committed to Iowa but still has Nebraska and Ole Miss on his visit list.
NCAA guidelines indicate a college can pay for a prospect’s transportation, as well as lodging, three meals per day for the prospect and their parent or guardian, plus “reasonable entertainment” and three tickets to a home sporting event.
“I hear from recruits all the time that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and they don’t want to miss their chance to experience it,” Helmholdt said. “Kids recognize how unique visiting opportunities are and they want to take advantage of them.”
A handful of major programs had “no-visit” policies similar to Iowa’s five years ago. Coaching staff or philosophy changes have largely eliminated them, including a famously strict code at Michigan under former head coach Brady Hoke. The tide has shifted under Jim Harbaugh and the Wolverines are expected to get a visit from Benjamin next month.
Even Texas and Oregon, which draw from much larger recruiting bases than Iowa, have softened their no-visit stances.
Rivals.com’s national recruiting director Mike Farrell tackled the issue in a column Thursday morning.
“If you’re a football coach in 2016, you have to let committed recruits take visits to other programs,” Farrell wrote. “I am a cranky, old man who thinks your word is your word and a commitment is a commitment. But I am also a realist.
“The bottom line is this: If you try to enforce a no-visit policy in this day-and-age, it will bite you in the butt.”
NCAA rules prohibit college coaches from commenting on unsigned recruits.
Agreeable or not, Iowa does make its policy clear when it sends out scholarship letters to committed seniors on Aug. 1, the first date allowed by the NCAA.
“This scholarship offer is pending upon completion of the following requirements,” the letter states before listing Iowa’s off-the-field requests. The top item?
“You must not visit another institution.”
Recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell did not back down from that line when asked about its importance at Iowa’s media day in August.
“Once you’ve committed to us, we’ve committed to you,” Bell said. “We’re not going to go out looking for other kids at your position, so we don’t expect you to go out looking for other schools. If we ask you do something and you can’t comply, then what makes you think when we ask you to do something as part of this team, you will?
“We stick to that steadfast.”
Iowa’s team recruiting ranking has finished between 49th and 60th nationally over the last four seasons, according to the 247 Sports Composite. Those final results account for players committed to other schools who agree to visit Iowa City.
“I know fans see it as a hypocritical stance by Iowa,” Kakert said.
“What they’ll say is, ‘Look, it’s up to the kid.’ If they’re poaching other kids and getting them after their committed, that’s recruiting. It’s up to the kid to say, ‘No, I’m good here,’ or ‘Yeah, I’m interested.’
“But it works both ways.”
Linebacker Mike Bruner from Mequon, Wis., became Iowa’s first commit of 2018 earlier this week. His could be the first class to see possible changes or loosening from inside Iowa’s gleaming Football Operations Center.
Kakert believes any shift would go unannounced by Iowa, avoiding the spotlight Benjamin’s situation put on their aging policy.
“These recruits aren’t under Iowa’s thumb, so this has been more about action and reaction than an enforcement mechanism,” Kakert said.
“I think that had Eno been up front with them instead of being kind of stealthy about the visits to Missouri and Arizona State -- in Iowa’s eyes -- they probably could have worked through this.”
High-profile prospects make it harder for the Hawkeyes to sit patiently, too. Coaches across the Big Ten and SEC kept after Benjamin and Calloway after they committed and likely won’t stop recruiting them until National Signing Day on Feb. 1, 2017.
“When you’re recruiting the top kids from Texas, Florida and elsewhere,” Helmholdt said, "you’re going to have a very hard time bringing those kids all the way through to National Signing Day is you’re that strict on no-visits."
RETURNS ON RECRUITING
How do the Hawkeyes stack up over the last dozen years in recruiting? Here are their overall team rankings according to the 247 Sports Composite, as well as the top-rated prospect in each class, and his individual national ranking. Ratings on the 2017 class are as of Thursday afternoon.
Year Team Top Prospect Pos. National rank
2005 7 Tony Moeaki TE 30
2006 35 Jeremiha Hunter LB 76
2007 32 Bryan Bulaga OT 79
2008 51 John Wienke QB 406
2009 67 Keenan Davis WR 112
2010 39 C.J. Fiedorowicz TE 63
2011 27 Rodney Coe RB 136
2012 40 Greg Garmon ATH 176
2013 58 Jon Wisnieski TE 457
2014 59 Jay Scheel ATH 365
2015 60 James Daniels C 336
2016 49 Cedrick Lattimore DE 499
2017 25 A.J. Epenesa DE 23