IOWA CITY — The University of Iowa isn’t offering football scholarships to class presidents and Eagle Scouts hoping it’ll work out. You need the right height and weight and you must possess a certain degree of athleticism to play Big Ten football.
And then, for Iowa, you have to fit in. And then what Iowa wants out of you is ...
“We really believe strongly, more key than that, more significant than that, in the fact that we’re looking for guys who are going to be good teammates in the program, be successful students, and also be people who are going to go out and contribute in their community and be positive community members,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Those things are really important. Bottom line is it’s great to have a player that’s skilled, but if they don’t have the character to be successful it won’t mean much. We try to be mindful of that whenever we go out.”
This was Ferentz in his opening statement on signing day Feb. 7. As you follow Iowa’s chain of command on the topic, the message didn’t waver.
“The days of ‘Rudy’ are long gone,” said Scott Southmayd, Iowa’s player personnel director (16 years on Ferentz’s staff). “No one just shows up and gets on the team. Everyone is evaluated. We’re trying to find if they’re the right fit for this university. Are they of high character? Are they someone who has graduating as a goal? And then also, are they going to be valuable members of the football team?”
Remember how everyone last summer after Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops retired suddenly realized Ferentz was the dean of Big Ten and college football coaches? Twenty years comes in handy with player evaluation.
Everyone who’s walked through the doors either in the old Jacobson Building or the new Hansen Performance Center and who has played football for Ferentz at Iowa left some sort of mark. Whether they were a consensus all-American or a one-year washout, they left data. They’re still shaping the experience for today’s players.
What worked? What didn’t?
“We’ve got 19 going on 20 years of data on kids who have and haven’t been successful here,” recruiting coordinator/defensive line assistant (ends, by the way) Kelvin Bell said. “We know exactly what we’re looking for.”
Look at the people who are doing the evaluating.
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Ferentz will begin his 20th season as Iowa’s head coach when Iowa begins spring practice March 19. Defensive coordinator Phil Parker also will be in his 20th season at Iowa. Defensive line coach Reese Morgan was hired in 2000. Seth Wallace was a grad assistant at Iowa before being brought in to coach linebackers/defense in 2014. Quarterbacks coach Ken O’Keefe was Ferentz’s offensive coordinator for 13 years before spending three seasons with the Miami Dolphins and then coming back last winter as QB coach.
Offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, special teams coordinator LeVar Woods and Bell played for the Hawkeyes. They had five years to watch players rise and fall. They saw what made it work or not work. They have personal experience of Iowa football working for them in an extremely positive way.
“There are people in place who are evaluating who have played here and been here,” Bell said. “We know what’s successful here in Iowa City and for the Iowa football team. So, when a guy says, ‘This is our type of guy,’ we know the concerns we’re looking for.
“We know the things that work here and the things that don’t. We have to be able to weed that out regardless of how many stars this kid has. Or what people say. There’s enough people here who know enough about Iowa football that we can make a decision, an educated decision early on, and say this kid is a fit for us.”
When describing Iowa’s recruiting, about five years ago, maybe more, you started hearing Kirk Ferentz used the word “fit” a lot.
“There’s a responsibility not only athletically, but socially here, too,” said Bell, who played defensive line at Iowa in 2000 before an injury cut his career short. “Is Iowa City the right fit for this kid? You can’t just bring in everybody. Just because there’s this many stars in front of his name, you can’t just drop him off here and think it’s going to work. You’ve got to do your homework on the character of the kid. Is this the best fit for him?
“If it’s just a football fit, you’re running the risk of ... You’re not doing the right thing for the kid and you’re not doing thing for the program. It’s got to fit on a lot of different levels.”
Character, intelligence and work ethic are high on the list of intangible traits on Iowa’s board. The football often comes along with that.
Of Iowa’s 23 signees, all but three were captains for their teams as seniors. Running back Henry Geil, linebacker Logan Klemp and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy were three-year captains. O-linemen Cody Ince and Jeff Jenkins were two-year captains, so were defensive back D.J. Johnson and defensive tackles Daviyon Nixon and Noah Shannon.
“Everyone wants to recruit a captain, right?” Bell said. “The more high school captains, the better.”
Multisport athletes are a big deal for Iowa.
“We can’t stress that enough,” Bell said. “Just being in those competitive circles is huge.”
Iowa doesn’t have a ton of mega-high schools, with 3,000-plus students. Basketball and track are sometimes the only sports coaches actually see a prospect compete in live.
Think of how offensive tackle Tristan Wirfs competed his senior year at Mount Vernon. He won a state heavyweight title, a state shot put title and was the first prep athlete to win three state discus titles since the 1950s. He basically did a lot of winning. The offers didn’t rain down. Wirfs had just two, Iowa and Iowa State, but he also committed to Iowa in December 2015 and didn’t need a lot of baby-sitting after his commitment.
Wirfs became the first true freshman to play tackle for Ferentz in his 19 seasons as Iowa’s head coach and started eight games.
“If you’re a Big Ten athlete in the state of Iowa — Tristan Wirfs — you’ve got to be dominant in every sport you play,” Bell said.
This isn’t a “high five” to Iowa for recruiting character. Expectations never go away and they run both ways. If you trumpet character and you’re 5-7, no one hears you. Winning is a part of this. It has to work.
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Iowa hadn’t made a big deal out of bringing in walk-ons until this year. Along with the 23 scholarships, Iowa announced Feb. 7 that 18 walk-ons also would join the Hawkeyes. The walk-ons have the requisite talent and probably aren’t getting in the door without super-mega “yes, sir” intangibles that may very well include Eagle Scout.
When asked about the walk-ons, Ferentz talked about how “everyone” is evaluated.
“You put the stories aside when you evaluate players, because it’s not fair to the whole team if you don’t,” he said. “I don’t know how you have good team morale (if you don’t). With that being said judgments are hardly perfect, we know that. That’s the beautiful thing not only about football and sports, but in real life. You get measured on what you do out there on the field.
“But for guys who are clowning in school, if he’s not going to class, missing appointments, things like that, can we really trust you in the fourth quarter? You watch these (NFL) playoff games, there’s one team I’m thinking of that had a perfect season, wide open on fourth down, quarterback hits him in the chest and he drops it. You wonder why they had a perfect season, it’s just academic. So, those things tend to like surface, and I think we try to judge what guys are doing, what their attitudes are like, and what they’re doing on a daily basis.”
The walk-ons cast a wider net in the constant search for dependable, consistent production.
“It’s good for all of us to feel a little push, it never hurt any of us,” Ferentz said. “If you’ve got other guys competing, the better off you are, for sure.”
As far as physical attributes go, those have to be there, too, obviously.
“Everybody wants as big as they can get,” Bell said. “One thing you hear guys talk about is length. I think about Broderick Binns (a former Iowa defensive end and now director of player development with the program). He’s not Anthony Nelson, who’s 6-6. Brod is 6-1, but has 6-6 arms. That’s length. You’re looking for length.
“You’re looking for twitch, the short-area burst, the acceleration. Stop and starts. But that’s what everybody looks for. You can go to a combine and see that stuff. What we’re looking for are the more intangible things that combines and stop watches don’t show. Those are things that you’re looking for.”
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