By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – From a perception standpoint, recruiting classes mostly have looked the same under Kirk Ferentz at Iowa.
A typical class under Ferentz consists mostly of three-star prospects with an occasional two-star or four-star sprinkled into the mix, along with a five-star every decade or so.
The class is also usually ranked in the middle of the Big Ten and anywhere from 25th to 50th nationally.
Iowa’s last two recruiting classes were no different in that regard, but the depth chart suggests that they are different in a good way.
Eight of the starters listed on Iowa's depth chart for Saturday’s game at Michigan State come from the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes.
They are second-year sophomore quarterback Nate Stanley, junior receiver Nick Easley, second-year sophomore tight end Noah Fant, redshirt freshman tight end T.J. Hockenson, redshirt freshman left tackle Alaric Jackson, second-year sophomore defensive tackle Cedrick Lattimore, second-year sophomore cornerback Manny Rugamba and second-year sophomore free safety Amani Hooker.
Furthermore, there are 20 players overall from the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes listed on the current depth, including true freshmen receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette, true freshmen defensive end A.J. Epenesa and redshirt freshman running back Toren Young.
Smith-Marsette and Epenesa are among nine true freshmen who have played for Iowa this season after having 10 true freshmen play last season.
“I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job the last two years in particular,” Ferentz said at his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “The guys that are here right now have really fit well. And recruiting is such a projection.
“You always think and hope that you’re doing the right thing, but you never know until you get them on campus and they’ve really got to be here four to six months before you get a feel if it was a good match, that type of thing. Then hopefully you see some growth as you go along. If the match is good then typically you see the growth.”
The eight starters from the 2016 and 2017 classes come from six different states, including two from Iowa (Nick Easley and T.J. Hockenson); two from Michigan (Alaric Jackson and Cedrick Lattimore) and one each from Illinois (Manny Rugamba); Minnesota (Amani Hooker); Wisconsin (Nate Stanley) and Nebraska (Noah Fant).
So even from a geography standpoint, the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes are typical for Iowa under Ferentz, with each having a strong Midwestern flavor.
It could just be a coincidence or an aberration that Iowa’s 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes have produced so many early contributors, or maybe it’s a sign that the Iowa coaches are improving at identifying talent.
Ferentz’s staff always has been pretty good at finding hidden gems, but it usually takes at least one or two seasons for most of them to start contributing beyond special teams.
Ferentz stuck with Smith-Marsette at receiver even though the New Jersey native lost a fumble in the season opener against Wyoming.
There have been times under Ferentz when a young player makes a critical mistake in a key game and then sort of disappears due to a lack of trust. But Ferentz treated Smith-Marsette differently because Ferentz believes in him and because Iowa needs Smith-Marsette’s speed and quickness on the field.
Ferentz was rewarded for his faith when Smith-Marsette caught two touchdown passes in the 44-41 overtime victory at Iowa State on Sept. 9, including the game winner.
“Last week I had a minor setback, but this week I came back and they showed they believed in me and I took advantage of it,” Smith-Marsette said in a statement after the game.
Easley has been another key contributor at receiver after transferring to Iowa from junior college. The receiver position hardly is a strength for Iowa at this stage, but it also isn’t the weakness that many feared it would be.
Easley and Smith-Marsette deserve a lot of credit for that.
And then of course, there is Epenesa’s presence at defensive end where the former five-star recruit from Edwardsville, Ill., already is a disruptive force.
Iowa had a recruiting advantage with Epenesa being the son of former Iowa defensive lineman Eppy Epenesa.
But it also helped that Iowa combined to win 20 games over the past two seasons, including a school record 12 victories in 2015.
So much goes into landing a recruit, but winning makes the whole process easier.
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Starters from the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes
Listed in alphabetical order
1. Nick Easley: Just four games into his Hawkeye career and the former junior college star has emerged as Iowa’s go-to receiver.
The preferred walk-on from Newton is filling the roll that Matt VandeBerg was expected to have this season. VandeBerg still is a big part of the passing attack, but Easley seems to be who Nate Stanley looks for during pivotal times.
The 5-foot-11, 203-pound Easley leads Iowa with 18 receptions and is tied with tight end Noah Fant for most touchdown catches with three.
Easley has shown that he can make catches in traffic and down field. He also can take a hit without dropping the ball.
2. Noah Fant: Speaking of Noah Fant, the second-year sophomore from Omaha, Neb., is showing signs of being Iowa’s next great tight end. He can play the position with power and with finesse and has a knack for scoring touchdowns with four of his 17 career receptions resulting in touchdowns.
3. T.J. Hockenson: The redshirt freshman from Chariton has five catches for 70 yards and one touchdown, while also excelling as a blocker.
A former multi-sport star in high school, the 6-5, 243-pound Hockenson is a nice complement to Fant at tight end, as their playing styles are different.
4. Amani Hooker: The Minneapolis native can always say that he made his first career start against Saquon Barkley.
So it should only get easier.
Hooker, like all of his teammates, struggled to contain Barkley. But you could argue that Hooker tackled as well as any Iowa player against Penn State. He finished with 13 tackles, including 11 solo stops, and had one pass break-up.
5. Alaric Jackson: It’s hard enough being Iowa’s starting left tackle at any stage, but 6-7, 320-pound Alaric Jackson has earned that distinction as a redshirt freshman which is almost unheard of under Ferentz. And so far, Jackson has held his own.
6. Cedrick Lattimore: The Redford, Mich., native has started all four games at defensive tackle and has four tackles, including assisting on a sack and on a tackle for loss.
7. Manny Rugamba: Rugambsa’s sophomore season got off to a rocky start with him suspended for the season opener against Wyoming and then benched the next week at Iowa State in the first half. He has since come back to solidify his starting position and is tied for seventh on the team with 16 tackles,
8. Nate Stanley: The Wisconsin native has been better than expected. He still is very much a work in progress, but you can only find so much wrong with a quarterback who has thrown 12 touchdown passes and just one interception in four games.
Stanley needs to work on throwing the deep ball with more accuracy and could use more touch on shorter passes. But the good still far outweighs the bad, considering how inexperienced Stanley was before the season.
He doesn’t seem to rattle, nor does he seem overwhelmed by the moment. He handled the hostile environment at Iowa State and the big stage against Penn State.
Key reserves on the depth chart from the 2016 and 2017 recruiting classes
1. Keith Duncan: The true sophomore from North Carolina is a Hawkeye legend after making the game-winning field goal against Michigan last season. But he is also the backup kicker after losing the job to junior Miguel Recinos.
2. A.J. Epenesa: Remarkably, he might be better than advertised, and that’s saying a lot, considering he was a five-star recruit who had scholarship offers from just about everybody.
The 6-5, 270-pounder has been a disruptive force at defensive end since the first game and is demanding more playing time just with his performance.
The problem is that Epenesa plays arguably the deepest position on the team. He is part of a four-player rotation with starters Anthony Nelson and Parker Hesse and walk-on Sam Brincks.
All four players have performed well this season, but Epenesa is too talented to keep on the bench for any period of time. His combination of size, strength and quickness is rare for an Iowa recruit and we’re seeing signs of greatness.
3. Ryan Gersonde: A true freshman from Wisconsin, Gersonde has been listed as the backup throughout the season behind third-year sophomore Colten Rastetter.
4. Matt Hankins: He is listed as the backup at left cornerback behind junior and fellow Texas native Josh Jackson. Hankins has appeared in all four games and has three tackles.
5. Ivory Kelly-Martin: The Illinois native has rushed for 74 yards on 11 carries and is averaging 21.4 yards on seven kick returns.
6. Ihmir Smith-Marsette: My biggest take from the Kid’s Day practice on Aug. 11 was Ihmir Smith-Marsette’s speed and quickness.
The New Jersey native stood out amongst the other receivers on the team.
I wondered then if his speed would carry to the field in prime time and we now have our answer.
But it isn’t just Smith-Marsette’s speed that has stood out. He also has shown dependable hands and the ability to seize the moment, as he did against Iowa State by scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
7. Brandon Smith: The Mississippi native was the most celebrated of Iowa’s four freshmen receivers, but so far, he hasn’t had the same impact as Smith-Marsette, at least as a receiver. Brandon Smith has shown a willingness and an ability to block, which is key for an Iowa receiver.
8. Geno Stone: The true freshman from Pennsylvania is listed as Hooker’s backup at free safety and is a major contributor on special teams. Stone has played in all four games and has four tackles.
9. Toren Young: The Wisconsin native is third on the team with 78 rushing yards on 19 carries. He runs with power and patience, both of which fit nicely in Iowa’s running scheme.
10. Kristian Welch: The true sophomore from Wisconsin is listed as Josey Jewell’s backup at middle linebacker and is a key contributor on special teams. Welch saw action in 13 games last season, mostly on special teams.
11. Spencer Williams: The redshirt from Cedar Falls is listed as the backup center behind junior James Daniels.
12. Tristan Wirfs: The former multi-sport star from Mount Vernon is poised to be a multi-year starter at right tackle. He already has made the depth chart as a true freshman.
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