Thursday, April 17, 2014

Updated on Thursday, December 8th, 2011 at 5:00 am in Football.

Hawk Stock: Recruiting

Hawk Stock: Recruiting

In this latest installment of our Hawk Stock series, we’ll take a look at recruiting as it relates to the Iowa football program.  Here are links to our previous items:

Hawk Stock: Annual Expectations
Hawk Stock: Coaching Evaluations
Hawk Stock: Coaching Report Card

From a macro point of view, here are some key aspects to how I view the recruiting landscape in Iowa City:

-No national title lineage or history to draw on
-Small state that produces the fewest to second fewest BCS caliber players of any in the Big Ten
-Must rely on out of state recruiting; not the top dog or fan favorite in those states
-Has relied heavily on player ID and development the past 30 years
-By next fall, will have Top 15 practice facilities in the sport
-Phenomenal game day environment & fan support
-35 former players currently in the NFL
-More players drafted last two years than all but two teams in the sport (USC & Florida)
-Very good graduation rates of its players

BIGGEST BARRIER

In my opinion, one of the biggest hurdles Iowa has to overcome on an annual basis is the limited number of BCS conference players the state produces each year.  To narrow that down even further, the number of players the state produces that have common offers between Iowa and Iowa State is even lower.

Take a look at the graph below.  The first set up data is purely state driven.  The state is listed, along with it’s population then the number to the right of that are the number of players produced in that state who signed letters of intent with BCS conference programs in the 2011 recruiting class.  The second set of numbers are actual football programs, with state population and the number of in state players those programs signed:

I have been closely following Iowa’s recruiting efforts for the past decade and am also familiar with the number of in state players who receive common offers from Iowa and Iowa State. That number is typically in the four to six per year range.

For the class of 2011, Iowa had just two instate commitments. Wisconsin, a program whose home state has nearly doubles the population of Iowa, had 10.

If you want to know why programs like USC, Texas, Florida, Ohio State and Georgia are not just perennial powers but Top 10 winners all time, look no further than the number of high major players their states produce.

The fact that Iowa has a Top 15 winning percentage during the previous decade in all of college football is a great testament to the Iowa coaching staff’s ability to identify and develop talent, because Iowa’s recruiting class rankings during that time are about seventh best in the league.

I knew the state of Georgia produced a lot of talent, but had no idea it was that much. I didn’t bother looking into statewide information for California, Texas and Florida because we know they produce a boat load of talent.

Be sure to take notice of states like Louisiana, South Carolina and Mississippi. None of those states has more than 4.5 million people yet they are producing solid numbers of high major players. Many of those players make their way to the rosters of LSU, South Carolina and Ole Miss.

I didn’t include them in my spreadsheet, but LSU signed 16 players from Louisiana last year, South Carolina signed 10 in state prospects and Ole Miss nabbed 13. When you can fill close to half or more than half of your recruiting class with home grown talent, your job is a lot easier.

That has never been the case at Iowa and likely never will. Most programs in the Big Ten and Midwest have to (or choose to) get a significant portion of their players from out of state (save Ohio State). This includes programs with national title lineage like Oklahoma, Michigan, Notre Dame and Nebraska.

Some will want to point at Nebraska and say ‘Hey, don’t they have the same instate issues that Iowa has?’ Yes, they do. But they also have recruiting advantages that Iowa does not have, like three national titles in the 1990′s alone and better football facilities.

While we’d all like to see Iowa’s name higher on the annual recruiting rankings, it’s far easier said than done from Iowa City.

NFL IMPACT

The biggest ace Iowa has up its sleeve right now on the recruiting front is the NFL angle. Realistic or not, most high school players who can get scholarships to play football at Big Ten universities believe they can make it to the NFL.

Most colleges will tell these prospects that they can help them get to the next level and Iowa is no different. Only when Iowa says it, there is a great deal of truth to it.

Over the past two NFL drafts, only USC and Florida have seen more players drafted than Iowa. There are currently 35 former Hawkeyes on NFL rosters according to ESPN. That number ranks 8th nationally and second in the Big Ten behind Miami (FL), USC, Texas, Tennessee, Ohio State, Georgia and LSU.

Iowa has had the most offensive linemen drafted in the NFL (11) since the 2003 NFL Draft.

Every Iowa senior starting tight end (nine) under Kirk Ferentz has been drafted in the NFL or made an NFL team in his first year as a rookie.

All 11 members of Iowa’s starting defensive unit in 2008 were either drafted in the last three NFL drafts or signed to NFL free agent contracts following the drafts.

Over the past 10 years, 90 of 100 (90%) of Iowa’s senior starters have been drafted in the NFL or signed NFL free agent contracts.

Defensive secondary Coach Phil Parker has coached 14 Iowa defensive backs to the NFL and Iowa defensive backs have earned all-Big Ten honors 25 times.

Those are phenomenal statistics, all the more impressive when you consider Iowa’s recruiting classes have averaged seventh best in the Big Ten ranking since 2002.

The facts support the following statement: This staff can identify talent and develop that talent better than any staff in college football today.   The seven teams ahead of Iowa on the list above related to former players currently on NFL rosters have built in recruiting advantages Iowa does not have.  Those schools routinely sign Top 15 or better recruiting classes nationally, year in and year out.  Iowa’s classes have likely averaged in the mid to upper 30′s, at best, over the past decade.

I have contended for a number of years that you not only have to work harder at Iowa, you have to work smarter.  Iowa has a sign in its weight room that has been a solid mantra through the years; Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.

CURIOUS DEFENSIVE LINE ISSUES

I left out the defensive line position in the accolades above, because I wanted to single that group out in this segment.

Iowa has placed 20 defensive linemen in the NFL under Kirk Ferentz and every senior starter (seven) under DL Coach Rick Kaczenski has gone on to the NFL.  Iowa was the only school to have three of its defensive linemen drafted in the 2011 draft.  Last year’s senior class (Clayborn, Klug, Ballard) were a part of four defenses whose average NCAA scoring defense ranking was 9.25.  Yes, I wrote average ranking.  They were 7th in 2010, 10th in 2009, 8th in 2008 and 12th in 2007.  That 2007 number is not a misprint, either.

Those are out of this world numbers that should be leading to annual success on the recruiting trails.  Iowa has had some success in landing a few four stars here and there in recent years, especially as of late; Darian Cooper signed in February of 2010 and Iowa has verbal commitments for the 2012 class from four-star prospects Faith Ekakitie and Jaleel Johnson..

Here is a list of defensive line recruits that have signed with Iowa inside of the last four years who later chose to leave the program with eligibility remaining:

John Raymon (2011)
Donovan Johnson (2010)
Anthony Ferguson Jr (2010)
Tyler Harrell (2009)
Marty Hopkins (2009)
Scott Covert (2009)
Jason Semmes (2008)

Toss in players like Scott Covert and Cody Hundertmark who began their Iowa carers on the defensive line, moved to the offensive side of the ball and later left and that takes you to nine players.

Iowa can’t afford that type of attrition at any position, much less the most important position on its team based upon the historical success and importance the defensive line has been to Kirk Ferentz football teams.

Under Ferentz, Iowa has never won more than seven regular season games unless it’s scoring defense was ranked 24th in the nation or better. That has happened five times in the Ferentz era, and in four of those years Iowa has a scoring defense ranked 16th or better in the nation.

Simply put, the Iowa defense line has been the biggest barometer between breakout seasons and average seasons.

WHY THE ATTRITION?

I wish I could answer that question, but I am as puzzled as you are. Given the NFL success stories, why is Iowa having trouble keeping defensive linemen on the roster or getting more of them to Iowa City in the first place?

It’s hard to believe the coaching staff just missed that badly on nine players over a three year span when that had never happened at this position before.  So what things have changed in recent years or during this time frame where we have seen so much attrition at this position?

The only tangible thing I can point to is former Iowa Defensive Line coach Ron Aiken leaving the program on February 14th, 2007.

Iowa had seen defensive linemen transfer out of the program during Aiken’s time in Iowa City but Aiken was in Iowa City when Ballard, Klug and Clayborn signed with the Hawks.  He coached Clayborn for one year. Rick Kaczenski was hired to replace Aiken and has been there ever since.

This fact isn’t brought up to throw Coach K under the bus, because he must be doing a good enough job to see Ballard, Clayborn and Klug get into the NFL.  Mitch King and Matt Kroul play under Coach K in 2007 and 2008, too.  However, it’s the only ‘obvious’ change in visible variables I can see from the outside, which doesn’t always provide the best view.

So even taking that coaching position change into account, I do not have an answer to the question of ‘why the attrition?’.  It is promising to see some of the players Iowa has landed in each of the last two recruiting classes along the defensive line.

WHY NO JUNIOR COLLEGE INFLUENCE?

As best I can recall, Derreck Pickens has been the only real Juco contributor along the Iowa defensive line and that was in 2001.

This year’s Iowa team could have used one or two Juco’s, but I don’t recall Iowa being actively involved with any one year ago and if they were, things never got very far along.

If they weren’t, then they over estimated the abilities of the players they had coming back.  You knew Mike Daniels and Broderick Binns were going to be good for you because you had seen it.  However, everyone after those two were unknowns outside of the walls of Fort Kinnick.  Perhaps these players had given the staff enough confidence to play the hand they had, which is how things played out.

Unfortunately, the group behind Binns and Daniels was never able to play together for any length of time due to injury.  Dom Alvis had outside contain issues early on after moving to defensive end and couldn’t hold his gap on the inside to start the year.  Lebron Daniel had similar contain issues but improved as the year went along.  Tom Nardo did a solid job when he was healthy but that was for less than half the season.  Alvis missed the final three regular season games due to an ACL tear in the Michigan win.  Carl Davis injured his leg in training camp and was never 100 percent so this was a lost season for him.  Steve Bigach flashed but was not ready for the minutes he was asked to play at the Big Ten level.

From my vantage point, most of the players after Binns, Daniels and Nardo needed another year of seasoning and weight training before they were ready to fill any serious role on the Iowa defensive line, but the Hawkeyes didn’t have that luxury this season.

This brings me back around to the Juco question circa the fall of 2010.  The Iowa coaching staff had to see this coming but chose to play the cards in their hand instead of trying to improve the hand via the Juco ranks.  There is no guarantee that a Juco player or two is going to save the soup, but it couldn’t have hurt, given the importance of this positon to the program.

IS HELP ON THE WAY?

The 2008 Iowa recruiting class was ranked 9th in the Big Ten by Scout.com and 13 of the 25 signees are no longer with the program.  Those Class of 2008 players would be the seniors on the 2012 team.  Guys like James Ferentz and James Vandenberg were a part of that class and more than 50% of their ‘signing classmates’ are gone.

The 2009 Iowa recruiting class ranked 11th in the Big Ten (out of 12, as I am factoring in Nebraska’s national class rankings into the Big Ten now).  That class had 18 members on signing day and eight of them are no longer in the program.

Having that level of attrition in back to back classes which would now be your fifth year seniors and fourth year juniors is devastating to a developmental program like Iowa’s.

The 2010 class was ranked 6th in the Big Ten and signed 21 members; 18 of them are still at Iowa.  The 25 member 2011 class was ranked 4th in the Big Ten and is down five members from signing day, but many of these players saw action this season.

The 2010 and 2011 classes have a lot of speed and talent but 2013 is a better target for that talent to show up in big numbers on the field.

Iowa will be receiving a visit from Juco DL Jake Sheffield this weekend, but they have yet to offer him a scholarship.

SUMMARY

This program is not likely going to be a ‘destination’ program on the whole, but it has produced a lot of NFL players on both sides of the line of scrimmage.  This program, like many others, is built in the trenches and the Hawkeyes have done well here.

You’d like to think that sort of success would make their jobs easier on the recruiting trails, but nothing seems to come easy.  Landing players like Cooper, Johnson and Ekakitie along the defensive line in the last 10 months is certainly encouraging and Iowa’s three youngest classes are full of promise.  However their two oldest classes have been hammered by attrition, which causes concern for next year.

That leads us to our next installment in this Hawk Stock series, a look into the crystal ball to see what the 2012 season looks like.  We’ll do that Friday or Monday, using a lot of the data we have shared, putting together potential depth charts and examining Iowa’s 2012 opponents and what they have coming back.

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