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IOWA CITY — When COVID-19 abruptly halted any in-person recruiting, most of Iowa’s 2021 targets already had the chance to step foot onto what’s now called Duke Slater Field.
Most already walked past Nile Kinnick’s Heisman Trophy in the Hansen Football Performance Center. They experienced the rest of Iowa’s 2,100-plus-acre campus.
But 2022? That’s a much different story.
“I think we only had three guys that we signed today that had made it to campus before that COVID dead period hit,” said Tyler Barnes, Iowa football’s director of recruiting, during Wednesday’s Signing Day news conference.
Two of the three — Xavier Nwankpa and Aaron Graves — were in-state prospects. The other — Jayden Montgomery from Green Bay, Wisc. — is the son of former Hawkeye Jerry Montgomery.
The other 14 signees “never got to campus until the very earliest June of this year,” Barnes said.
Iowa turned to the same tool much of the business world turned to when the pandemic hit — Zoom.
“During the pandemic, we had no choice to do anything other than Zoom, whether it was visits, virtual visits, facilities, all those kinds of things,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said.
Barnes said the staff has a “multitude of videos” to show recruits remotely, and he used Zoom and FaceTime for facility tours.
“I put together a pretty extensive presentation that we would kind of go over,” Barnes said. “It's about an hour, hour and 15 minutes with each kid and his family.”
Not every presentation was exactly the same.
“Certainly we tailor that to where the kid is from and the position he plays and highlight any traditions or NFL guys, any success we've had at that position,” Barnes said.
Defensive line coach Kelvin Bell also used Zoom as a way to teach the already-signed linemen in the time he couldn’t spend traveling on the recruiting trail.
“When those guys were still in high school, I was able to have Zoom meetings with them to talk about the Xs and Os, the schemes, the calls and all the tags,” Bell said last month.
The virtual tools “worked at the time,” Barnes said.
But just like what many other industries realized, Iowa’s staff discovered interacting via Zoom is not the same as interacting face-to-face.
“That's a heck of a lot better than it was 30 years ago, but it's still not the same as getting in front of people and really getting a feel for the personalities of people involved,” Ferentz said. “There's no substitute for that. I don't care what business you're in. I certainly know in education, in coaching, you've got to be with the people you're working with. It's the same way in recruiting.”
With in-person recruiting, “you're able to showcase so much more,“ Barnes said.
Recruits were largely hesitant to pick a school without seeing it in person first. Only two of Iowa’s 17 signees verbally committed before June 2021. Six, on the other hand, committed in a span of eight days this month.
“I wanted to commit this past summer, but the pandemic definitely pushed back my timeline,” said Nwankpa, a five-star recruit who picked the Hawkeyes despite getting scholarship offers from Ohio State, Notre Dame, Alabama and other juggernauts. “I wanted to go out and visit and see other schools.”
Bell expects to be spending the time he used for Zoom teaching sessions on the real recruiting trail.
“I'll probably be on a regional flight somewhere trying to find another guy,” Bell said.
Iowa isn’t completely ditching Zoom, though. The telecommunications platform still has a lot to offer as the Hawkeyes try to entice recruits.
“Some of the stuff we did on Zoom and the virtual visits we'll continue to use moving forward just to grab a kid's attention early in the recruiting process before they get here officially or unofficially,” Barnes said.
Still, Ferentz knows Iowa’s “best chance” to win over a recruit happens “when a prospect comes to campus several times and really gets to know the feel of things.”
COVID-19 didn’t change that.
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