116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
IOWA CITY — Had Drew Stevens followed the traditional route for a college recruit, he’d still be taking high school classes for the next few months.
“You should be passing notes to your friends,” Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods likes to remind Stevens. “I guess they don’t do that anymore. They text each other.”
Instead, any notes Stevens wants to pass to high school classmates would require a postage stamp and a couple days for it to travel halfway across the country. (Texting seems a little easier.)
Stevens, a kicker from North Augusta, S.C., is one of seven incoming freshmen to enroll a semester early at Iowa and participate in spring practices.
Early enrollment certainly is not a new trend at Iowa or across college football this year. In 2021, six Iowa athletes enrolled early. In 2020, Iowa had three.
The trend’s success has been increasingly apparent, though.
“It makes a huge difference,” Iowa strength and conditioning coach Raimond Braithwaite said this week. “Especially in the summertime, we’re ramping up our conditioning going into camp, and it makes a difference.”
Braithwaite said the early enrollees are “treated much differently” because of their experience, albeit only a few months, with the Iowa strength and conditioning staff.
“The conditioning volume is different for a guy that just starts out in the summer,” Braithwaite said. “Knowing these guys have a full winter phase in their back pocket, we can get them into the army, so to speak, at a quicker pace.”
That difference has translated from the weight room to Duke Slater Field.
Half the early enrolled Hawkeyes started at least one game in 2021, including offensive lineman and Cedar Rapids Kennedy grad Connor Colby. Wide receivers Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV also started games.
None of the incoming freshmen who arrived in the summer had significant playing time in their first year on campus.
“Pretty safe in saying Connor for sure would not have been playing I don't think if he hadn't been here (in the spring),” head coach Kirk Ferentz said in February. “And you probably could say that about both Keegan and Arland.”
This year’s batch of early enrollees include a few who are in advantageous positions to compete for a spot on Iowa’s depth chart.
Stevens is expected to be in the mix for the starting kicker job, Woods and Ferentz have said in news conferences.
Five-star safety Xavier Nwankpa, meanwhile, is one of the highest-rated recruits to ever come to Iowa.
“All I've seen from him so far was somebody that's trying to get better as a player,” defensive coordinator Phil Parker said. “He actually wants to come in and watch the film with me and sit there and say, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’”
Defensive back T.J. Hall also has caught the coaching staff’s attention since arriving on campus.
Hall “really had a good couple practices” and “really popped up,” Parker said, before experiencing “a little bit of overload” as an incoming freshman.
Woods said Hall has “looked impressive” as a returner as well.
Defensive linemen Brian Allen and Caden Crawford, wide receiver Kaden Wetjen and linebacker Greg Fagan also arrived a few months earlier than the rest of the newcomers.
Some position groups at Iowa have more experience with early enrollees than others.
While Allen and Crawford are defensive line coach Kelvin Bell’s first official early enrollees, it’s not a totally new concept at the position group.
Bell had two-hour Zoom sessions with his incoming freshmen in 2020 during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I didn't have anything to do, so I was just going through the playbook for those guys,” Bell said. “They came in a little bit further ahead from an Xs and Os standpoint.”
While Iowa has reaped the benefits of past spring arrivals — or an unexpected chunk of time for instruction in the case of 2020 — Ferentz is careful not to apply too much pressure on any recruit to enroll early.
“I don't encourage it, but we don't discourage it,” Ferentz said in February. “If it's what the player wants to do and he's doing it for the right reasons, then I think it's great.”
Bell recognizes the benefits of joining the program in the spring semester — both from a football perspective and time management perspective — but he doesn’t want to “rob” athletes of their chance to be a high school student for a little longer.
“You really only get one opportunity to get a true senior year,” Bell said.
Then after that, note-passing time is over.
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