Iowa football: Recruiting approach shows they’re strong talent evaluators

The Iowa football team isn’t known for bringing in top-tier recruiting classes, yet they still produce top-end talent. Now the data backs it up.

In 2019 alone, Ohio State signed two more five-star players (3) than the Iowa football team has in the last decade.

It’s just not the Hawkeye way, and it’s not for a lack of trying (well maybe it is a bit), it’s just that the Iowa football team has figured out what works best for them. Last year, they offered just one five-star prospect (ILB Nakobe Dean who signed with Georgia), but they prefer to live in the 3-star range. And who can doubt them when they’ve had considerable success in the Big Ten.

While most Iowa football fans know that this team is never going to finish number one in the rankings, it wasn’t quite so obvious just how big the gap was in terms of recruiting talent (on paper) until this nice little graphic was shared the other day.

This graph is a ranking of each position group’s recruiting ranking sorted by 247Sports composite rating numbers, and it’s quite obvious the Iowa football team is consistently at the bottom of the page. In fact, only two positions rank higher than 10th for the Hawks and that’s the offensive line and defensive line, which makes sense given that’s where most of Iowa’s rare four-star and five-star players play coming out of high school. They win in the trenches and they recruit well in the trenches, but the other positions speak volumes to the success of the Hawkeyes recruiting approach. They’re finding diamonds in the rough and turning them into stars. Josey Jewell, Desmond King, Josh Jackson, and Nick Easley are just a few of the guys that have come out of the program after joining it with almost no fanfare.

It’s why they can rank 12th in receivers (which presumably includes tight ends) yet have two tight ends drafted in the first round this past season earning them the moniker of Tight End U by everyone but ESPN.

Now to be fair, part of this is by design, and part of this is by necessity. I am sure Kirk Ferentz would love to fill his locker room with talented and hard-working five-star recruits who fit the AJ Epenesa mold, but those guys are almost always locked up by the Ohio States, Michigans, Clemsons, and Alabamas of the world. So instead, Iowa finds the guys who have a 5-star work ethic and a 2-star talent rating next to their name and they develop them into Iowa football players over the course of 4 to 5 years.

It’s an approach that has been developed over the past 20 years because it hasn’t always been this way. Back in the earlier years of the Kirk Ferentz era, the Hawks were pulling in five-star recruits with relative regularity, but the success rate of those guys was honestly no better than that of a 3-star recruit that had just a few power 5 offers.

Kirk pivoted, and as we are seeing this year with the Hawks putting together arguably one of the most talented teams in the Kirk Ferentz era, it’s working.

Last season the Iowa football team sent four juniors to the NFL. Anthony Nelson was a 3-star prospect with just 6 offers. Amani Hooker was a 3-star prospect with just 6 offers. Noah Fant was a 3-star defensive prospect with 12 offers, and his running mate TJ Hockenson, who went 8th overall in the 2019 NFL Draft, was a 3-star prospect with just two offers.

If that isn’t finding talent where others aren’t looking, I don’t know what is.

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