Five-star defensive back Xavier Nwankpa commits to Iowa
Southeast Polk senior picks Iowa over Ohio State and Notre Dame
By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Xavier Nwankpa could go just about anywhere to play college football.
You name the Power 5 program and chances are the senior at Southeast Polk High School has a scholarship offer; a long and distinguished list that includes Alabama, Ohio State, Louisiana State, Clemson, Michigan, Oklahoma, Texas, Texas A&M, USC, Penn State, Wisconsin, Oregon, Notre Dame, and of course, Iowa and Iowa State among others.
So, for Nwankpa, a five-star recruit, to have committed to Iowa on Wednesday is a major victory on the recruiting front for Kirk Ferentz.
Nwankpa, who is widely regarded as the top safety in the 2022 class, actually committed to Iowa Monday night during Kirk Ferentz’s home visit.
He has great length at 6-foot-2, great ball skills, and plays with both finesse and physicality, weighing close to 200 pounds.
He also led Southeast Polk to its first state title this fall.
Nwankpa is the kind of national recruit that usually picks one of the blue bloods, but sometimes, you get lucky and have one of those national recruits living in your backyard.
But that also added to the pressure to land Nwankpa, and for Kirk Ferentz and his staff, it’s mission accomplished.
It was Nwankpa’s 18th birthday on Wednesday, but he was the one giving a huge gift to the Iowa football program.
He announced his decision on CBSSports.com and in front of about 200 people who cheered loudly when Nwankpa made his announcement. He was accompanied by members of his family, and seated at a table with three hats placed in front of him with each hat representing his final choices: Iowa, Ohio State and Notre Dame.
He at first grabbed for the Ohio State hat, but then put it down and grabbed the Iowa hat, and to the thrill of his audience, placed it on his head.
“So what went into my decision was the coaching staff and the stability there, the guys on the team and the commits,” Nwankpa said. “It’s like a brotherhood there and a place where I can see myself succeed.”
Iowa has certainly dominated instate recruiting for at least the past four decades, but some elite prospects have gone elsewhere.
Cedar Falls native Ross Pierschbacher was ranked among the top offensive linemen in his senior class when he signed with Alabama after having been committed to Iowa. He would go on to win three national titles with the Crimson Tide as a multi-year starter.
T.J. Bollers was a former four-star recruit from Clear Creek Amana, which is near Iowa City, and the son of former Iowa football player Trevor Bollers, and yet despite those connections, he signed with Wisconsin in 2021 as an outside linebacker.
So, it’s not a given that a recruit from instate will pick Iowa just because he lives nearby, especially those with elite offers.
Imagine the sales pitch that Ohio State threw at Nwankpa, the chance to win a national title in almost every season and to be a member of one the greatest programs in the history of college football.
Ohio State also has a pipeline to the NFL for defensive backs that is even more impressive than Iowa’s pipeline.
Notre Dame has arguably the most storied tradition in college football, and the Fighting Irish actually helped their cause with Nwankpa by promoting Marcus Freeman from defensive coordinator to head coach based on what Nwankpa said Wednesday.
And Nwankpa also could’ve played for arguably the greatest college head coach of all time in Alabama’s Nick Saban, but instead, Nwankpa wants to be a Hawkeye.
He wants to play close to home, and for a program that has a knack for turning unheralded high school defensive back recruits into stars in college.
From Desmond King to Micah Hyde to Josh Jackson to Riley Moss, the list of unheralded defensive backs who have thrived under Phil Parker is long and impressive.
That had to be a good sales pitch, even though Nwankpa’s situation is different since he is the opposite of unheralded.
But imagine if you’re Nwankpa and you’ve watched or learned about all these other defensive backs who supposedly weren’t nearly as talented as you, and yet they still became stars for Iowa, and in many cases, would go on to play in the NFL.
Nwankpa has to be thinking if Phil Parker can do that with unheralded recruits, then the sky’s the limit for me.
Iowa set a program record this season with 24 interceptions and Moss was named the Big Ten Defensive Back of the Year.
Moss is the fifth Iowa defensive back in the last 10 years to win the award.
Combine those numbers with Iowa winning the Big Ten West Division and Kirk Ferentz had a lot to sell besides location.
“That was a big factor, five of the last ten Big Ten DBs coming from Iowa, like being the home state, that’s just crazy,” Nwankpa said. “Obviously, it doesn’t happen anywhere. Credit to coach Parker for getting those ready, and that’s where I wanted to be.”
Nwankpa was asked why he felt it was in his best interest to stay home for college rather than play for a traditional power.
“They have some of the best DB production in the country, and it’s a chance to do something that hasn’t been done yet,” he said of Iowa, which is 10-3 and preparing to face Kentucky in the Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day in Orlando, Florida. “So that’s what I’m going to do. go make something happen.”
Nwankpa plans to enroll at Iowa in January and that should help him get on the field even sooner, although, he would be expected to play as a true freshman no matter when he joined the team.
Nwankpa said Name, Image and Likeness wasn’t really a factor in picking Iowa.
“It didn’t really play a big role because I’m going to school to play football and get my degree,” he said. “So that’s my main focus.”
The important of location can’t be overstated because it’s the one thing that Iowa had over every other program except for Iowa State, and Nwankpa eliminated the Cyclones a long time ago, even though his father ran track for Iowa State.
Nwankpa, as a five-star recruit, will be under tremendous pressure to live up to his reputation. He is arguably the most decorated player to commit to Iowa during Kirk Ferentz’s 23 seasons as head coach, and without question the highest ranked from instate.
But having five stars attached to your name doesn’t always guarantee success, as Iowa knows first hand.
Former offensive lineman Dan Doering and former linebacker Kyle Williams both were considered five-star recruits, but Doering battled injuries and played sparingly, while Williams left the team early in his career.
Nwankpa shows all the signs of being a top-notch defensive back. His list of scholarship offers alone speaks volumes about his talent and upside.
His commitment not only makes Iowa’s 2022 recruiting class much better on paper, it also serves as a message that Kirk Ferentz still has something impressive to sell.
Because that’s what recruiting is all about, building relationships and trust, and selling your brand.
Iowa took a beating against Michigan last Saturday in the Big Ten Championship game, losing 42-3 at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa brand also took a beating in the summer of 2020 after multiple former black Iowa players accused the program of racial disparities.
But for Nwankpa to have turned down the nation’s top programs to play for Iowa shows that progress is being made from a culture standpoint.
He referred to the team as a brotherhood and that signifies a group that is unified.
Nwankpa is one of two star recruits from Southeast Polk, the other being junior offensive lineman Kadyn Proctor, whose offer list is similar to Nwankpa’s list.
It’s reasonable to think that Iowa probably helped its cause with Proctor by landing Nwankpa.
A recruit of Nwankpa’s caliber is extremely rare for the state of Iowa. So, when one does come along, it’s important to seize the opportunity and that’s what 66-year old Kirk Ferentz and his staff just did.
It’s also reasonable to think that some other schools probably have mentioned Ferentz’s age during the recruiting process. Recruiting, for some, is a win-at-all-cost business, and everything intensifies with a recruit such as Nwankpa.
But Kirk Ferentz and his staff won this unique recruiting battle, and they should be happy and proud about a job well done.