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Iowa football recruiting: Next generation of defensive backs arrives

Croot Loops: Definite opportunities here for incoming freshmen

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I’m probably stealing from the “Four Downs” thing I will write for the secondary, but the top and bottom of Iowa’s defensive backs is kind of crazy.

First, I included walk-ons Brandon Snyder and Jake Gervase. It was pretty much a no-brainer because they are the depth chart at free safety, with Snyder listed as the starter. Iowa is tied up on scholarships right now and has five (really six commits with grayshirt safety Noah Clayberg coming on scholarship next January). I also included safety Kevin Ward, who saw a lot of time on special teams last season.

I think seeing the secondary players available for 2016 you’ll realize an urgency to prep for the future.

Seniors: Desmond King, Greg Mabin, Maurice Fleming, Anthony Gair

Juniors: Miles Taylor, Kevin Ward

Sophomores: Brandon Snyder, Joshua Jackson, Jake Gervase, Omar Truitt

Redshirt freshman: Michael Ojemudia

Freshmen: Lance Billings, Cedric Boswell, Amani Hooker, Emmanuel Rugamba

Iowa played four corners last season. Three (King, Mabin, Fleming) will exhaust their eligibility this year, which is great...for this year. So, suddenly, sophomore Joshua Jackson is a pretty important player, him being the only other player with corner experience on the roster. Jackson will likely miss spring practice after undergoing postseason surgery.

Still, for 2016, it’s extremely good news that Iowa has three senior corners, including the reigning Jim Thorpe Award winner (which came with this really cool Rolex). Iowa is swimming in corners this year. Let’s blog about next year next year.

And the January depth chart:

LC: Mabin, Fleming

SS: Taylor, Gair

FS: Snyder, Gervase

RC: King, Jackson

OK, let’s blog a little about 2017 right now. I do think Ojemudia will see some real game time this season. He was close to taking off the redshirt last season. He probably at least sees “Raider” package time and maybe becomes a player to watch for 2017 corner opposite, probably, Jackson.

Again, you’ll read some about position flexibility with the four defensive back recruits, including one that kind of surprised me. I think it’ll be interesting to see who lands where, with big opportunity at corner opening up in 2017.

Lance Billings

Lance Billings (5-11, 161 pounds) did a little bit of everything at Clearview High School (Lorain, Ohio), which also produced linebacker Anthony Hitchens, a former all-Big Ten player at Iowa and now Dallas Cowboy.

Billings is a three-time All-Ohio selection. As a junior, Billings caught 49 passes for 799 yards and nine touchdowns. He also had 26 carries for 328 yards and three touchdowns. On defense, Billings had 30 solo tackles, intercepted three passes and returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns.

Billings didn’t do much if any camping, so he didn’t have a huge recruiting profile. His only other offer before Iowa called him on a Monday morning late last June was from Ball State. Iowa called that Monday and Billings said he was in before the call ended.

“I spoke to the Iowa coaches today and it was actually Kelvin Bell, one of the recruiting coaches (director of on-campus recruiting) who told me I had the offer,” Billings told HawkeyeReport.com. “I told him I want to be there and then he put (head) coach (Kirk) Ferentz on the phone and he was excited to hear the news and he said he can’t wait for me to get there. He said he’s excited about me as a player and he’s glad I want to be a Hawkeye.”

Billings is being recruited as a defensive back, either corner or safety. Just going off the numbers and what he’s been asked to do at Clearview, including return kicks and punts, he could do a lot of things at Iowa.

“He’s a phenomenal athlete. No matter where he is on the field, he immediately becomes a difference maker,” Clearview coach Mike Collier told the Chronicle-Telegram (Ohio) last December. “He’s a jack-of-all-trades and he’s fun to watch.”

[Oh hey, on Kelvin Bell: It’s been more than two weeks since head coach Kirk Ferentz said he would have an assistant coach/recruiting coordinator hired for the vacancy left by Jim Reid’s departure to become defensive coordinator at Boston College. Bell, a former Iowa player and graduate assistant, was hired two summers ago for the director of on-campus recruiting position. Well, six days ago the University of Iowa posted an opening for the director of on-campus recruiting position. I think Bell has been promoted to the full-time assistant/recruiting coordinator position. When Reid left in early January, Bell was sent on the road (NCAA rules allow, I think, eight coaches on the road at any one time, maybe it’s all nine assistants). He’s been on the road recruiting for Iowa’s 2017 class. I think this is done. Working on a confirm.]

Here’s a quick Billings excerpt from his Lorain, Ohio, Morning Journal commitment story:

Billings said Iowa plans on using him as a defensive back, but he hasn’t ruled out offense.

“They want me on defense, which I’m more than fine with,” he said. “But if they needed me to play offense, I would be ready.”

Despite going to a D-IV school, Billings is not the first Clipper to become a Hawkeye. In fact, the first is a current Dallas Cowboy in 2010 Clearview graduate Anthony Hitchens.

“Knowing that he (Hitchens) did what he did out of Clearview, it makes me want to do what he has,” Billings said. “He had a great career in high school, got noticed by a big football school and made the most of that. I want to do the same.”

Rivals: 3 stars

Scout: 2 stars

247Sports: 3 stars

Composite: 2.66

Depth chart in 2016?: I hate being so mealy mouthed on these, but who knows? I’ll go maybe for all four of these because 1) what the secondary depth chart will look like next year and 2) the special teams core could always use bodies. How are players picked for special teams? We know there was more of a focus on that last season. I think Seth Wallace’s profile will grow some in this regard. And, if Kelvin Bell is the new assistant, he had a hand in special teams during his time as a grad assistant at UI. One thing with Billings, I do think he could have a lot to offer in the return game. That will be locked down, of course, by King next season, so this is submitted for your future consideration.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Shaun Prater

If I’m still doing Croot Loops next year, I’m for sure dumping this portion. It’s amazingly difficult and, I’ve had pointed out to me, I always pick a positive example. I think I’ve explained before that the Croot Loops are going to start from a positive outlook. This is just the beginning of the story. We’ll let it develop and it will come together more accurately in the next however many years. OK, with that caveat, little known fact about Shaun Prater: The future NFLer came into Iowa at 5-10 and 159 pounds. Rivals had Billings at 161 pounds. Iowa lists him at 6-0, 176. Either way, Billings will start his career in the “undersized” category with possible playmaking abilities.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “Lance Billings is very similar to a Boswell. We’ve got him projected in the backend as a safety or corner. Somebody who’s very versatile. You’ll see him with the ball in his hands if you watch his tape. He’s very dynamic. Really fits that line of Micah Hyde-like, just in terms of let’s recruit a guy who’s not just lined up at corner or who’s not just lined up at safety. You look at those guys who we’ve got projected for the backend, you look at their tapes and you’ll see them playing on the backend as much as you’ll see them playing offense. I feel like we’ve got a real good one there. We spent a lot of time with Lance during the summer. Had an opportunity to be around he and his family.”

ESPN scouting report: He has the speed and technical skills to cover wideouts all over the field. He is a very capable receiver on offense and this gives him the ball skills that make him an opportunistic ball-hawking DB as well...He will need to add some bulk to handle the DI ground game, but he is a good open field tackler who is aggressive and intuitive. While Billings has the toughness and vision to be effective, he does need to add strength to shed...Fast, quick DB with excellent ball skills. Good awareness and vision allow him to be disruptive. He is very good with the ball in his hands and could draw interest as a returner on special teams as well.

My take: I don’t know why, but I think it’s good Billings comes from the same community as Anthony Hitchens. I know I’ve written in these (just yesterday, in fact) that it’s always cool to see a guy be the first to hit it big for his school (Kristian Welch). It makes sense to follow a path that has been carved, particularly if it was a positive experience, which I assume it was for Hitchens, now a Dallas Cowboy, at Iowa. Just get a tough, little playmaker vibe here.

Cedric Boswell

Iowa’s summer camps turned out well for a handful of players, with “well” meaning they’ve walked away with a scholarship offer.

Early last June, four players camped at Iowa and eventually said yes to the offer they received. That happened again last weekend.

Birmingham (Mich.) Groves cornerback Cedric Boswell showed the Iowa staff something during a camp and walked away with an offer. The 5-11, 175-pounder committed the following Monday. At the time on June 30th, that gave Iowa its 19th commitment (that’s pretty much the entire class committed before July just to punctuate the new speed of recruiting).

Boswell had seven offers, all from Mid-American Conference schools (Ball State, Bowling Green, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Toledo and Western Michigan). He went into the Iowa City camp, worked out at cornerback and found the Power 5 offer he sought.

“I talked to (defensive coordinator) coach (Phil) Parker, who is the defensive coordinator, and he said he really likes my speed,” Boswell told Hawkeyereport.com. “He said that I have a lot to work with and he can help me get a lot better at corner.”

Iowa and Parker have been down this road. In 2013, the Hawkeyes signed Desmond King out of Detroit East English Village. King’s claim to fame, at that point, was 2,300-plus rushing yards as a senior in high school. OK, that and a state-record 29 career interceptions.

That worked out.

Speed is part of the package with Boswell, whose father, Cedric, is a professional heavyweight boxer based in Detroit. He ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the Michigan State camp earlier this summer. As a junior, he ran a 10.72-second 100 meters and finished second in the Michigan High School Athletic Association Lower Peninsula Division 1 finals.

Boswell played both defensive back and running back as a prep. He holds the school record for rushing yards in a game (334 yards). He helped his prep team post an 11-1 record as a senior while reaching the second round of the state playoffs.

Rivals: 2 stars

Scout: 3 stars

247Sports: 3 stars

Composite: 2.66

Depth chart in 2016?: If this speed is real — and we’re talking state track times, so let’s assume they are real — that has to help point Boswell toward an early appearance on the field. He’s solidly built, too. If a freshman has a trait that really stands out, speed, size, strength, it gives them a chance. I think speed gives them maybe the best chance (lots of O-linemen start big and need some reshaping).

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: B.J. Lowery

Billings will come in at a similar size (Lowery started at Iowa as a 5-11, 175-pounder). He’s probably got a little better speed than Lowery. We’ll see on the toughness (Lowery was a fearless tackler). Wait, did I just write “we’ll see about the toughness”? Didn’t I write earlier that Boswell’s dad was a heavyweight boxer? Oh yeah, I did. I’m sure Boswell has some of that in his background. I’m sure he’s not afraid to mix it up.

Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: (I actually at this point was talking about the possibility of a two-way player, bringing up the possibility of it happening this year with four corners that they trust and this led into the discussion of Boswell.) “We had him in camp and he ran extremely well. Very fast kid. Very good feet. Very good athlete. His dad was a heavyweight boxer. There’s some interesting stuff with Cedric. The big thing was we had him here and had him in camp. Worked with him and it was certainly the right fit for us. He’s a corner.”

ESPN scouting report: He is capable of playing deep-set zone or flats equally well. His burst to the ball is good and he keeps the play in front of him. He can play tight man cover as he is very fluid and can flip and burst rapidly...He positions himself well and is a good open field tackler. He is developing his attacking skills as a defender and has the athleticism and attitude to clamp down on the run game...Athletic player who is also an excellent running back. He has some rawness to his secondary skills but he is quick, fast and smart, all traits that will serve him well as he transitions to the DI game.

My take: Intriguing athlete. The speed factor can open some early doors for him. If he has a Lowery-type career (two-year starter, somewhere on the all-Big Ten spectrum), that’s a pretty great get.

Amani Hooker

Amani Hooker grew up, at least a little bit, in the shadow of his older brother, Quinton, a star basketball player at Park Center High School in Minneapolis, Minn.

Some of that is touched on in this post from the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Amani did OK in his chosen sport football.

Deep breath...

He was conference MVP as a senior. Earned first-team all-state honors as a senior and was finalist for “Mr. Football.” Second-team all-state as a junior and third-team all-state as a sophomore. He was first-team all-conference for three straight seasons. Hooker played defensive back, quarterback, running back, and wide receiver for Park Center. He set school record for interceptions in a season (11).

And there’s an edge.

From the post: When Hooker lines up at safety, a fierce look replaces his easy smile. The first Class of 2016 defensive back to commit to Iowa, Hooker arrives at the ball with a purpose. Before this season, he was best-known for delivering crunching tackles.

“My dad always stresses playing aggressive, whether it’s an exhibition game or a playoff game,” said Hooker, who measures 6-1 and 195 pounds.

As a senior, Hooker finished with 78 tackles and 11 interceptions on defense. On offense, he had 1,042 yards passing, 478 yards rushing and 380 yards receiving, accounting for a total of 29 touchdowns for Park Center (8-3) this year.

I hope I haven’t used Micah Hyde as an “off the top of my head” yet.

Rivals: 3 stars

Scout: 3 stars

247Sports: 4 stars

Composite: 3.33

Depth chart in 2016?: Hooker has a skill set that could land just about anywhere on the depth chart. If he comes into camp and shows playmaking ability, you could potentially see him at running back. OK, maybe not this year. I think Iowa is good at RB (I think). What he did for Park Center’s defense might be what gets him to the field the quickest, so that’s why he’s starting at defensive back. It’s also what immediately puts him in the mix for possible special teams.

Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Micah Hyde

This one was easy. Hyde did everything for his Fostoria (Ohio) team, including kick PATs. Hooker didn’t kick (I haven’t seen any numbers that say he did), but he did the QB thing, played running back, wide receiver and, of course, played safety on defense. His film showed excellent tackling ability. OK, on to what Seth Wallace said because I think it might get your attention (we were talking about the possibility of a two-way player and Hooker’s name came up).

Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “He’s really a unique recruiting deal. He didn’t hold an offer from Minnesota. He was up for Mr. Football in the state of Minnesota. I know he was a finalist. I’m not sure how many made that list. The one who did end up winning we also offered, but he chose to go to Nebraska, J.D. Spielman. Amani had an outstanding year. Played multiple positions. We’ve got him projected to play safety for us. Extremely versatile. Probably a below-the-radar recruit because of the high school he came from. He worked on his grades and that’s something he’s done a really good job with.”

Interactive Map: Iowa's 2016 football recruits, with insight from Seth Wallace

I think he’s a Micah Hyde starter kit. Really great ball skills. “Getting back to Hooker, our offensive guys watched him at running back. He’s not of the same build as Toren Young or Toks (Akinribade), but he’s someone who carried the ball extremely well for his high school team. We could potentially see him on that side of the ball, but right now we’ve got him projected as a safety.”

ESPN scouting report: Flashes college potential at both receiver/wildcat QB and safety. Very good athlete who moves around the field on offense to create favorable matchups from a variety of alignments. Good route runner who can stick his breaks, move the chains after the catch and make the key block to spring a long run. Displays good range on defense and well-rounded run/pass support. Will return and cover kicks effectively. Looks to have more speed and pursuit on defense — faster on that side and very good within the box...Not a burner, but has good football speed which allows him to cover ground quickly on offense and defense. As mentioned, appears faster on defense. Makes a lot of plays with his ability to run along with his good blend of size, athleticism and ball skills. Offensively he will surprise with his ability to make the first defender miss after the catch and speed cut in the open field for big gainers. We like him as a pursuit tackler...This kid grows on you the more you watch him. Hooker is a versatile safety at the next level or attractive offensive weapon with his blend of size, strength and athleticism on the outside. Needs to continue working on becoming faster and more explosive.

My take: I admit, I fixate on certain archetypes of former Hawkeyes, but I do try to be honest and don’t overstate what I think a recruit can be. That said, you probably know where I’m going with Amani Hooker. I watched a few of his Hudls and his Iowa signing day highlight tape and I think Micah Hyde.

Hooker has great ball skills. Park Center used him as a wildcat QB, return specialist and wide receiver. He looks great with the ball in his hands. At Iowa, I think his size probably projects him as a safety. A couple of observations on defense: 1) He keeps his feet moving through his tackles. It was a highlight tape, but Hooker didn’t seem to show any backdown. He hit through runners and won those battles. 2) He’s got such great speed and anticipation that he too often started plays flat footed. This squelched any deception that offenses tried against him, but it’s a habit he’ll likely have to grow out of.

Highly versatile. Strong tackler. Great ball skills. Micah Hyde starter kit.

Emmanuel Rugamba

It is safe to say the Hawkeyes are back in the recruiting game in the state of Illinois.

Naperville Central cornerback Emmanuel Rugamba (6-0, 172) gave the Hawkeyes a yes during a Hawkeye Tailgater event in early August, which included several prospects in Iowa City for a visit. Rugamba picked the Hawkeyes over 14 other offers, including Boston College, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State and Pitt.

You’ll see a lot of highlights that show Rugamba as a wide receiver. During a Core 6 Showcase in Chicago this January, Rugamba lit it up as a wide receiver.

“Rugamba destroyed press coverage and blew by defensive backs with his burst and sharp route-running,” Rivals Midwest recruiting analyst Josh Helmholdt wrote.

Rugamba is smart. He took a peak at Iowa’s cornerback depth chart and noticed that after this season, there will be vacancies.

“The way their depth chart is set up at corner, they’re going to need guys to be ready in our class, so they see me playing my freshman year on special teams and nickel packages,” Rugamba told HawkeyeReport.com. “Then, my sophomore year, when Desmond King and all those guys are gone, it will be time for us to step up and be in a starting position. That’s why they want me to get my feet wet a little my freshman year and be ready to go my sophomore year.”

That sounds like a plan and it is the plan.

But...

“They (Iowa coaches) said they could use me on offense too, but I see a lot more opportunity at corner, so that’s what I’m interested in,” Rugamba told HawkeyeReport. So, maybe the plan is a little more flexible, but clearly Iowa needs to start packing away corner prospects.

Naperville Central coach Mike Stine told the Chicago Tribune that Rugamba was one of the most highly recruited athletes from his program.

“Manny is a fantastic athlete and a very hard worker,” Stine told the Tribune. “He’s a leader with high goals and expectations. He has the ability to play either side of the ball at the next level.”

Rugamba was the fifth Illinois athlete to pick Iowa. He joined Phillips linebacker Amani Jones, Crystal Lake Central defensive end Romeo McKnight, Niles North running back Barrington Wade and Sycamore linebacker Nick Niemann in signing with the Hawkeyes.

Rivals: 3 stars

Scout: 3 stars

247Sports: 3 stars

Composite: 3.00

Depth chart in 2016?: OK, a little curveball here. I think if Rugamba sticks at corner, he probably redshirts this year. If he comes in as a wide receiver, I think he’s got a better shot to play as a true freshman. I think long term, and, you read, I think Rugamba agrees, that corner will be a better opportunity. Ah, a Catch-22. Rugamba has a shot to play special teams. He might need some time in the weight room, especially if he does stay at corner.

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Off-the-top-of-my-head Hawkeye comparison: Greg Mabin

This might be a stretch. Mabin came in at 6-2, 190, much bigger than Rugamba. But Mabin also came in as a wide receiver before jumping to corner on head coach Kirk Ferentz’s suggestion. Mabin will be a three-year starter this fall. Iowa seems to like the bigger corner types. Maybe Rugamba doesn’t quite fit that at 6-0, but he certainly will have a chance to fill out to 190. I think you’re looking at a future corner (watch, he’ll lead the Hawkeyes this year in receiving).

Iowa recruiting coordinator Seth Wallace: “Again, it’s a broken record with the guys on the backend. We’ve got him projected as a defensive back at corner. The Big Ten Network was talking earlier about how this kid could come in and play receiver right away, which he probably could. Very, very talented. Probably a little bit more linear than a Boswell or Billings. Good size. Should be a good-sized corner for us. But also he’s very versatile and can do things with the ball in his hand.”

Scott Dochterman: Rugamba has position flexibility, and it’s too early to predict where exactly he ends up. He displays tremendous hands and good separation as a wide receiver. He has great speed, solid ball skills and good acceleration, which works for either side of the ball. He also shows potential as a special teams returnee and reasonably could vault into Desmond King’s backup for this season.

Rugamba might be the best pure athlete in the class. With the lack of experience at WR, he could compete for time right away. If he’s a CB, he might need to play in order to replace either King or Greg Mabin in 2017.

ESPN scouting report: Rugamba is just an average sized athlete. His size is neither a plus nor a minus unless he is to become a full-time corner then he is possibly on the positive side. Plays with nondescript strength as it is not a factor in the positions he plays. Speed is solid but not overly impressive. He runs well but does not run away from the field...Is an athlete, thus he is comfortable around the ball and with it in his hands. He reacts to it as a defender and is comfortable reaching for and catching it as a receiver...Demonstrates an ability to play where he is asked to. Is a contributor as a WR and a corner. Is functional at both and conceivably could be recruited as either.

My take: Good hips, good quickness. I wonder about overall speed, but length and change of direction will help there, along with training. I think he’s got to hang at corner. Iowa has to build a pool of candidates to take over the openings at two very important positions that will come in 2017. There is some looking ahead involved here.

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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