Iowa mining Iowa for football recruits
How the UI staff found the 6 Iowa preps who'll eventually sign with the Hawkeyes
The state of Iowa is first and foremost in the Hawkeyes' 2014 recruiting class.
The six Iowans who'll sign letters of intent Wednesday will be the most for an Iowa class since 2009, when Iowa signed seven Iowa preps including Brett Van Sloten and Conor Boffeli, two starters on the Hawkeyes' offensive line this season.
It's not as easy as coach Kirk Ferentz throwing a scholarship offer into a prospect's mailbox. Iowa has to be careful with Iowa preps. The goal is to compete with Ohio State and not Wartburg. Homework is done. Video is reviewed. Critical questions are asked.
You'll know some of the names. Cedar Rapids Xavier defensive end Matt Nelson helped the Saints to a 12-2 record and an appearance in the Class 4A state finals. Union's Jay Scheel steered the Knights to the 2011 3A state title. Waukee offensive lineman Ross Reynolds may or may not sign with Iowa. He does have a scholarship offer, but the timing on when it begins-- whether it's a full scholarship now or a grayshirt offer that kicks in January 2015 -- was up in the air even early this week.
Reynolds received his offer before his official visit on Jan. 24 and committed shortly thereafter.
"My game improved quite a bit," said the 6-3, 290-pounder. "I kept working hard and tried to get my name out there so coaches could see me, but it was mostly hard work and it paid off."
Nearly every year, the state of Iowa will produce a few no-brainers. Cedar Falls offensive lineman Ross Pierschbacher, ranked the No. 2 player in the state by Rivals.com, was wanted by everyone. He committed to Iowa last January. He changed his mind a couple of times, but eventually took an offer from Alabama and will sign with Nick Saban's program this morning. Urbandale wide receiver Allen Lazard, Rivals' No. 1 Iowa prep, followed family ties to Iowa State.
Of Rivals top 10 Iowa preps, the Hawkeyes landed six: Scheel, Nelson, Reynolds, OL Lucas LeGrand, OL Keegan Render and LB Parker Hesse.
Iowa will never be a highly recruited state. This has manifested in Iowa preps how you might think it would -- a sizable chip on their shoulders.
"Iowa has always been underrated," Scheel said. "Even when Iowa is ranked highly, it's still underrated. It makes you want to work hard. Iowa is known for walk-ons who can work their way into the NFL. That's a cool tradition. The coaching staff can make players into great football players."
They all took a different route that ended up in Iowa City. Iowa coaches found most of them, but a few had to raise their hands and, in some way, show they could compete in the Big Ten.
Every college football team in America hosts high school prospects for summer camps. The intent is football instruction, but the reality is it's a chance for colleges to evaluate a player. On the other hand, it's a chance for the player to sell himself.
Parker Hesse, quarterback and linebacker for 12-2 Waukon last fall, definitely put himself on the map with an excellent camp performance.
"I was one of those stories where I went to camp," said Hesse, who'll play outside linebacker at Iowa. "I didn't even really want to go do camp. My dad signed me up. Iowa wasn't really interested in me before then. I went to camp, had a good camp and from there it really escalated. We both kind of fell in love with each other."
Hesse said he ran a 40-yard dash for coaches. Camps, as you can imagine, also come with competitive games. Hesse said a lively 7-on-7 game, all passing and coverage, performance helped him.
"There's a point where they [Iowa coaches] talked about competitiveness when we were playing that," Hesse said. "I had a couple of good drills. I signed up for two days in a row. I played well the first day and then I came back the next day, and so they got to see me two days in a row and were that much more familiar with me and recognized me. I think that helped a lot."
Hesse went to camps at Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa. That was enough.
"In the end, you can only go to one school," he said. "If you want to go to 15 camps and come up with 25 offers, you still have to pick one. I was lucky. One of the camps I went to was the school for me. They felt the same about me, too. It turned out well."
Iowa assistant coach Reese Morgan is the first gatekeeper for videos from Iowa preps. Morgan started his coaching career in 1973 at Benton High School. He won three state titles at Iowa City West before moving to the Iowa staff after the 1999 season.
So, Morgan has been intently watching Iowa prep football since the early '70s. If he likes what he sees, the relationship grows.
LeGrand, a 6-5, 250-pound offensive tackle prospect, sent his videos to Iowa City. Iowa coaches saw him play, he received an offer and committed last March.
"They liked how I played and really liked how I move my feet," said LeGrand, who plays the shooting guard for Dubuque Senior, which is ranked No. 1 in Class 4A state basketball.
LeGrand's only other offer was Northern Colorado, an FCS school. That didn't matter. Iowa saw the video, meet LeGrand and saw what it needed to see. Last summer would've been his last to impress coaches in camps, but he already had an offer from Iowa and that's where he wanted to be.
Iowa saw Nelson's video and knew it wanted him. So did Notre Dame and Stanford. In the end, the 6-8, 255-pounder liked the relationship his family built with Morgan and thought why not stay close to home.
"Distance didn't play a huge factor with me, I like to travel," said Nelson, who, as of now, is set to play defensive end for the Hawkeyes. "The hometown was an appeal. In California, no one really knows you. In Indiana, no one really knows you. A half hour away, people do know you."
Nelson received an offer before camp season, but still attended Iowa's camp. He understands being a "wanted" player with options comes with a set of expectations.
"It's cool being wanted by a school, in a sense," he said. "Kids who come and walk on have a chip on their shoulder. I have to compete with that. I'm coming in with the same chip on my shoulder. I want to play as soon as I can."
Render, a 6-3, 310-pounder, started on the varsity as a freshman at Indianola. When a 15-year-old starts as a freshman O-lineman in the state's biggest conference, that puts you on the recruiting radar at the UI.
"I think that helped get my name out there maybe a little faster," said Render, who had his basketball season interrupted by recent foot surgery. "It's kind of hard to do on the 4A level. I think that kind of helped when it came to recruiting. I felt like I played well. The speed of the game was different, but after a few games, I felt like I held my own against the competition and played pretty well."
Render camped at Iowa after his freshman and sophomore seasons, but that was it.
"I wanted to stay local with my high school team and work with them," Render said. "I didn't do a ton of camping."
Render, who said Iowa is talking to him as an inside O-lineman, also had offers from Iowa State and Northern Illinois. Iowa was ahead of the other two in offers and attention.
Render is an offensive lineman from Iowa, one of the safer bets during Ferentz's 15 seasons of recruiting. Iowa has signed 21 O-linemen from the state in 15 years. Twelve have gone on to start at least one game. Of the seven offensive linemen Iowa has in the NFL right now, three are from Iowa.
"It's always kind of like we're under-recruited," Render said. "I think it gives us an extra chip on our shoulders to come in and work even harder. That usually pays off for guys."
Reynolds will go into signing not knowing exactly what kind of scholarship the 6-3, 290-pounder will have at the UI, but he knows he has an offer. That was cause enough for rejoice at his house.
Reynolds is the "last scholarship" guy for the 2014 class. In recent years, that guy has turned into safety Tanner Miller, a productive three-year starter, and tight end Brandon Myers, a tight end for the New York Giants. Miller (Mid-Prairie) and Myers (Prairie City-Monroe) also were Iowa preps.
"Yeah, it was awesome," Reynolds said with a laugh, talking the Iowa offer which was just more than a week old. "My mom [Leslie] has really been the one who's helped me out and kept my going. It was pretty awesome when this finally happened. It was an exciting moment for both us."
Reynolds is acutely aware of where the ropes are in recruiting. He decided to give Iowa camp a shot his sophomore year. He was invited as a junior. At times, Reynolds was the aggressor during his recruitment.
"There would be times where I'd have to call the [UI] coaches so I could talk to them," Reynolds said. "I haven't had to make a phone call up there since before the season started. Usually, once a week, coach Morgan will send me a personal letter, and sometimes coach Brian Ferentz or even coach Kirk Ferentz."
Reynolds waited for the Iowa offer and got it. The fallback plan was Western Illinois, where offensive line coach A.J. Blazek handled his recruiting. Blazek is a former Hawkeye offensive lineman who also happened to be a late signee.
"He was in the same boat I was in," said Reynolds, who projects as an interior lineman. "He was awesome about it. He told me he was going to be my biggest fan if this happened. I called him and he was glad that this happened. It was awesome how supportive he was toward it."
Scheel did his thing in La Porte City at Class 3A Union High School and Big Ten and Big 12 schools found him.
The 6-foot-1, 170-pounder led Union to a 3A state title when he was a sophomore in 2011. He moved from wide receiver to quarterback early in the season and threw for 1,334 yards and 12 TDs while rushing for 548 yards. His athleticism jumped off the video he sent to the UI staff.
"They [UI coaches] saw that tape and I guess it was buzzing around the office quite a bit," Scheel said. "They decided to contact me offer me a scholarship after that (summer after his sophomore year)."
Scheel didn't need to go to camps. He Iowa offer was enough for him. Iowa State, Nebraska and Minnesota followed with offers.
"I wasn't really worried about showing others what I could do," Scheel said. "I was just a sophomore and I was more worried about playing on the varsity."
Oregon, the place to be for a run-pass QB, visited Union in spring 2012 and had an interest in Scheel, inviting him to the QB camp in Eugene.
"Some schools were contacting me, but [Union] coach [Joe] Hadachek asked me if I wanted to talk to them," Scheel said. "I said, you know, coach, it's really not that big of a deal to me. I'm going to stick with Iowa no matter what. He told them that and that was it."
Scheel played QB at Union, but he'll move to wide receiver at Iowa. There's not a hint of buyer's remorse in his voice when he talks about this. The dream for him was Iowa, not quarterback.
"I always wanted to be a Hawkeye," he said. "It was a dream. Once I saw it right in front of me and they offered the scholarship, I jumped right on it. I couldn't be more happy about it."
When Scheel committed more than a year ago, Piersbacher, a 6-4, 295-pounder, was still committed to Iowa. The two texted and talked. Iowa's 2014 recruiting class was off to a great start with two Rivals four-star recruits.
Scheel hasn't heard from Piersbacher since he flipped to Alabama. There are no hard feelings on Scheel's part."It was a cool start to the class," he said. "Too bad he's at Alabama, but more power to him. That's a great school."