IOWA CITY, Iowa – The resurgence of the Iowa football team has repaired Kirk Ferentz’s image, quelled fan apathy and made Iowa relevant again.
It also helped to seal the deal with 2017 prize recruit A.J. Epenesa, who made a verbal commitment to Iowa on Sunday.
Success on the field often translates to success in recruiting, but it takes time for attitudes and perceptions to change.
Landing Epenesa, a 6-foot-5, 255-pound defensive end from Edwardsville, Ill., sent a powerful message, but he isn’t your typical five-star recruit, considering his father played football at Iowa and wanted A.J. to be a Hawkeye.
“I think whenever a team has a good season, I think that’s more for the next couple of years following, especially, I think it becomes something where you have to sustain it,” said Allen Trieu, Midwest Recruiting Football Manager for Scout.com. “I think Michigan State is a good example where they had one good season and it maybe had a small impact. They had two good seasons, okay, it’s starting to ramp up. And then now that they’ve started to sustain that level of success, you see their recruiting all the sudden really take a spike this year.
“So I think Iowa has to sustain that success.”
Iowa is coming off a 2015 season in which it set a school single-season record with 12 victories, won the Big Ten West Division and played in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 25 years.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is coming off a 2015 season in which it matched Iowa’s 12-2 record, defeated the Hawkeyes in the Big Ten Championship game and competed in the four-team college playoff. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in five of the past six seasons, whereas Iowa has won at least 11 games just once during the same six-year period.
“I think kids generally aren’t too swayed by one game or one season here or there,” Trieu said. “I do think that sustained level of success for a couple of years has a huge impact, though.”
Signing day approaches
Epenesa is the fifth player to commit to Iowa’s 2017 recruiting class, and the first from out of state. The other players in the class are North Fayette defensive tackle Juan Harris, Madrid defensive end Coy Kirkpatrick, Mount Vernon offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs and Solon tight end Jacob Coons.
As high school juniors, they still have to wait for more than a year to make their commitments official on the 2017 national signing day, which will be held on the first Wednesday in Feb., 2017.
But for the 24 players in Iowa’s 2016 recruiting class, the wait to make their verbal commitments official is almost over. The national signing day for the 2016 class will be held on Feb. 3.
Iowa’s 2016 recruiting class was close to being full when the Hawkeyes began their improbable march to the Rose Bowl, with 16 of the 24 players in the class having committed during the month of June alone.
Cedar Rapids Kennedy tight end Shaun Beyer has been the only addition to the class since late August. He committed to Iowa on Nov. 25, shortly after being offered a scholarship.
It might seem by landing so many players before the 2015 season even started that Iowa has missed on an opportunity to cash in with the 2016 recruiting class.
That’s not true, though, say the experts.
“A successful season plays more for the junior class than it does for the senior class because by the time your season ends the majority of the senior class already has their opinions formed on schools,” said Josh Helmholdt, who works as a recruiting analyst for Rivals.com. “So you don’t get a good bounce in the current class. Where you see that bounce from a strong season is in that subsequent class, the junior class; the guys that are looking around the country and thinking where they might want to play football.
“Seeing what offenses or defenses or schemes or cultures fit what they’re looking for, whereas your senior class is already developed those opinions. So it’s harder to make a dent. So I do believe that you’re going to see the results of that more in 2017 than you would have if they would have had a lot of offers to give out in 2016. Not saying it wouldn’t have helped at all, but I think that I wouldn’t have had a huge difference in how this 2016 class panned out.”
Iowa’s top remaining targets for 2016
The Iowa coaches still are trying to add the final piece or two to the 2016 recruiting class. Landing an offensive lineman appears to be a priority, considering two offensive linemen – Matt Farniok from Sioux Falls, S.D., and Alaric Jackson from Detroit – are expected to make recruiting visits to Iowa City this weekend.
Farniok has trimmed his list to Iowa, Nebraska and Michigan State. He has an older brother who played football for Iowa State and another who played for Oklahoma State.
Speculation has Farniok favoring Nebraska, partly because he has visited the Nebraska campus on numerous occasions.
“I think right now it’s Nebraska for him,” Trieu said. “He’s been there many more times than the other schools. So I think Iowa and Michigan State have opportunities to catch up on their official visits. But right now, it would have to be Nebraska, just because he’s been there so many times.”
Trieu said Jackson’s situation is harder to read because Jackson has mostly kept a low profile. Michigan State is considered one of Jackson’s favorite schools for obvious reasons, including location.
“Alaric Jackson is a kid who really hasn’t taken visits anywhere,” said Trieu, who lives in Grand Rapids, Mich. “He’s be kind of a ghost. So I think for him the official visits will tell the entire story.
“I think Michigan State is the school that he really likes and waiting to see if a spot opens up there late in the process. And if not, then he’s really I think starting at ground zero with a lot of those other schools because he hasn’t been those campuses.”
Important to have a backup plan
Farniok and Jackson are considered Iowa’s top two remaining targets for the 2016 class. But in recruiting, it’s important to have a backup plan or two.
The backup plan sometimes works better than Plan A, an example being Iowa consensus all-America defensive back Desmond King. The Detroit native was recruited by Iowa, but only after another defensive back from Michigan, Delano Hill, had switched his commitment from Iowa to Michigan.
“I think in past years Iowa always seems to be one of those schools that leading up to signing day there is a surprise kid here and there,” Trieu said. “Desmond King was a kid that they flipped from Ball State in the last second. And there have been some other ones who show up late. So I wouldn’t rule that out. “But as far as known names coming in, I think (Farniok and Jackson) are two of the chief names at the top of the board.”
Pella senior Noah Clayberg is considering a gray-shirt Iowa offer from Iowa that would put him on scholarship after one semester. Clayberg was a standout quarterback in high school, but is being recruited to play safety for Iowa.
Florida defensive back K.J. Sails is the only player to de-commit from Iowa’s 2016 class. Tight end Noah Fant, who is from Omaha, visited Nebraska in the fall, while Indiana running back Toks Akrinibade had recently scheduled a visit to Indiana before cancelling it.
Four-star defensive end Cedrick Lattimore, who is from Detroit, has stayed firmly committed to Iowa despite recently getting a Michigan State offer.
Wisconsin quarterback Nathan Stanley also has honored his commitment to Iowa despite reportedly having an offer from the Badgers.
“I think certainly the season that they’ve had more than anything has helped them keep some of these kids committed,” Trieu said. “Michigan State has come in on Cedrick Lattimore. Wisconsin has come in on Nate Stanley. A few other schools have tried to come in on Noah Fant, and you still have some schools trying to recruit him.
“And I think that the great season that they had, maybe doesn’t help you bring in new guys, but certainly helps you keep a few kids around when those other schools start trying to poach.”
A more aggressive recruiting approach
The fact that Iowa’s 2016 recruiting class filled up so quickly is partly the result of the Iowa coaches being more aggressive in making scholarship offers.
“What I like about Iowa and what they did this year is they weren’t afraid to evolve as recruiters,” Helmholdt said. “In the past, they had been a little slow at getting offers out, while the rest of the recruiting world has sped up.
“And even though this class isn’t full of four and five-stars, they went early, they targeted some guys they liked and they went after them.”
Lattimore saw his stock rise during his senior season. That led to more scholarship offers, but it appears Iowa is too far ahead for anybody else, including the Spartans, to catch up.
“A lot of teams came in late and tried to move him,” Helmholdt said. “So I like that they were ambitious in how they recruited, that they evolved in how they recruited. And I think that even though it may not pan out this year with a top-25 national class, long term it puts them in position to be recruiting on the upswing.”
1. Ohio State
2. Louisiana State
4. Notre Dame
6. Florida State
10. Michigan State
14. Texas A&M
16. North Carolina
17. Penn State
18. Miami (Fla.)
20. tie, Southern California, Stanford
23. Texas Christian
52. Iowa State
1. Ohio State
3. Louisiana State
5. Notre Dame
8. Michigan State
9. Florida State
12. Penn State
18. Southern California
19. North Carolina
20. Texas Christian
21. Texas A&M
22. Texas Tech
24. Miami (Fla.)
25. Arizona State
55. Iowa State