Iowa needs to gain recruiting momentum at Illinois

Chris Cuellar

IOWA CITY, Ia. – Ben Niemann had never been to a game like Iowa’s last Saturday.

The last-second upset of No. 3 Michigan at Kinnick Stadium stunned him as a player on the sideline. He couldn’t fathom the massive celebration growing up as the son of a mid-major football coach. And seeing that environment as a recruit? Forget about it.

As a junior from Sycamore, Ill., preparing to play at Illinois (3-7, 2-5) this Saturday, Niemann knows prospective Hawkeyes could be influenced by a strong two-week stretch.

“I’ve never been a part of something like that,” Niemann said Tuesday inside Iowa’s Football Operations Center. “As a recruit, that had to be a pretty cool thing and it had to be enticing, too. When you see that, I feel like that would definitely gravitate you towards a program.”

Iowa linebacker Ben Niemann is one of three defensive starters from the state of Illinois.

A handful of Iowa commits and dozens of other recruiting visitors had rave reviews of Iowa City after the nationally televised win and subsequent field-rush.

It provided Iowa (6-4, 4-3) with a much-needed boost after decommitments from four-star Texas natives Eno Benjamin and Chevin Calloway dominated the 2017 buzz. Rising receiver Beau Corrales added to the sting by leaving the class on Friday.

But big wins to close out 2016 could have an impact in seasons beyond, especially as the Hawkeyes go from a major home game to the prospect pipeline next door. Wins and visits make a difference.

“I went to a couple night games at Ohio State and one at West Virginia,” Iowa sophomore center James Daniels said. “But I knew wherever I was going to school, I knew they would have good fans. If you’re just staying in the stands as a fan, all the other places can seem pretty similar.”

Iowa has arguably recruited the state of Illinois as well as the University of Illinois has.

This week’s Hawkeye two-deep lineup lists nine players who grew up across the Mississippi River, including three defensive starters: Niemann, tackle Jaleel Johnson and cornerback Manny Rugamba.

Rugamba was named Big Ten freshman of the week after a clutch performance in his first career start against Michigan. Johnson was Big Ten defensive player of the week after logging nine tackles and a safety.

“I’m not big on ranking games, but I would probably say that was (Johnson’s) best game so far,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.

The Illinois run holds up historically, too. Iowa’s vaunted 2005 recruiting class included three five-star players from the eastern neighbor: Dan Doering from Barrington along with Tony Moeaki and Dace Richardson from Wheaton.

Chuck Long arrived from Wheaton almost 25 years earlier. And now the top 2017 commit, five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa, is from Edwardsville.

“We can’t exist solely on Iowa players, although we’ve had so many great players from this state,” Ferentz said on this week’s Big Ten coaches’ teleconference.

“You can get to Chicago a lot faster than you can get to Sioux City.

“There’s just a real natural attraction that way, so it makes perfect sense for us to really try to work that state hard.”

The current Iowa roster boasts 19 players from Illinois. The Illini and first-year head coach Lovie Smith have 29. That will provide plenty of familiarity on and off the field, as players and coaches have crossed paths in football and recruiting.

Illinois quarterback Wes Lunt is certainly included in that mix.

The senior from Rochester, Ill., was a four-star prospect in the 2012 class with interest from Iowa, but ultimately decided on Oklahoma State. After a transfer from Stillwater to Champaign, he’s had an inconsistent Illinois career highlighted by a 317-yard game against Iowa last year.

Lunt has shared time with Jeff George Jr., but is expected to start on Senior Day at Memorial Stadium.

“Both quarterbacks really throw the ball pretty well,” Ferentz said.

“The difference with Lunt is that he’s a veteran player. He’s been out there, really experienced. He can change it fast …Guy can throw the ball downfield and find guys.”

Lunt committed and enrolled early at Oklahoma State in 2012 while Iowa wound up with C.J. Beathard.

The Hawkeyes are hoping for more recruiting hits like that after these two important Big Ten battles. Illinois preps were on-hand at Kinnick last week – including commits Camron Harrell from Bradley and Ivory Kelly-Martin from Oswego – and with any luck, they’ll be tuning in for another Hawkeye win.

“If I would have had that opportunity as a recruit, I would have loved it,” Niemann said.


IOWA (6-4, 4-3) at ILLINOIS (3-7, 2-5)

Where: Memorial Stadium, Champaign, Ill.

Time/TV: 11:01 a.m., Big Ten Network (Scott Graham, J Leman, Rick Pizzo)

Line: Iowa by 9½

Weather: Cloudy with highs in low 40s during game, 20-30 mph winds