Howe: NFL Draft Spotlight Shining on Iowa

April 24, 2019

Written by Rob Howe

IOWA CITY, Iowa – Each year, Iowa signs about 20-25 recruits. They’re all dreaming playing after college.

The Hawkeyes certainly can sell that vision. They rank 14th nationally and are tied with Wisconsin at second among Big Ten schools in players drafted since 2010 with 33. Ohio State (53) stands at fourth overall.

While those of us in Iowa circles are aware of the program’s ability to churn out pros, it’s not well known across the board for football fans. That includes high school prospects considering the university.

Thursday night should help the cause, or, as we love to say these days, promote the brand. Iowa should receive plenty of air time when the 2019 Draft kicks off in Nashville.

Mackey-Award winning tight end T.J. Hockenson will hear his name called in the first round. Noah Fant could join him in making history by being the first teammates at the position to go in the opening round. Even if it doesn’t happened, it will be talked about with both guys attending the event.

Offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Brian Ferentz was asked Tuesday how the free advertisement on ESPN and the NFL Network might help in recruiting. He downplayed its potential impact.

He pointed to Iowa’s success with producing NFL offensive linemen not helping to keep former Cedar Falls High four-star Ross Pierschbacher in the state. He chose Alabama back in 2014.

While Ferentz has a point, he’s talking about beating a blue blood for a recruit. Most often, that’s not going to happen even if the Hawkeyes saw five of their players chosen in the first round. That occurs occasionally if it’s a legacy like A.J. Epenesa or there’s a strong family tie like with James Daniels.

Iowa lost Oliver Martin, Amara Darboh and Adrian Arrington to Michigan, too. Yes, those were receivers and Pierschbacher a lineman, but the draw of top tier programs, perceived or in reality, is strong, regardless of position.

Kids want to win.

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During Pierschbacher’s four seasons as a starter for Alabama, the Crimson Tide won 55 of 59 games with four trips to the national championship game and two titles. Iowa enjoyed a 37-16 record with a pair of bowl wins during that stretch, but there really wasn’t a comparison in terms of success.

So, no, this week’s NFL Draft exposure won’t win many battles with the blue bloods for what Ferentz called the “mega recruits,” but every bit helps when you’re Iowa.

The school certainly is playing up the Fant-Hockenson angle on social media. You can bet that will be ramped up during the draft.

And it should be. Scream it from the mountain tops. It’s worth celebrating.

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Positive signs have shown up in tight end recruiting based on the successes of Fant, Hockenson and the all-pro season just enjoyed by former Hawkeye George Kittle with the San Francisco 49ers.

Iowa grabbed three prime prospects at the position in ’19 (although Logan Lee will move to defensive end). Elijah Yelverton from Dallas joined for ’20 and Caleb Fauria, the son of former NFL tight end Christian Fauria, put the Hawkeyes in his Top 3 after visiting this week. Rutgers transfer Travis Vokolek has scheduled an official visit.

They all express amazement with how the Hawkeyes employ the tight end. Thursday’s draft coverage will extend that reach.

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Tight ends will be the focus, but they’ll have company. Safety Amani Hooker and Anthony Nelson, a defensive end, could very well be second-day picks, adding to a strong legacy at their respective positions. Like Fant and Hockenson, they’re underclassmen.

It all helps in recruiting.

Hooker will be added to the stories of Desmond King, Josh Jackson, Micah Hyde and a long line of other defensive backs developed by Phil Parker. Prospects mention them when looking here.

Iowa isn’t for everyone. The blue-collar culture of accountability eats up guys who step out of line.

That’s why it’s even more important for Iowa to shine on draft night. When fit is so important in recruiting, you need as many doors opened as possible.

Thursday night, Hockenson and Fant talk will kick some of them in.

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