June recruiting bonanza is about to begin. Here's how Iowa football got ready for it.
For 15 months, coaches at college football programs and prospective college football players haven’t been permitted by the NCAA to interact face to face. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down in-person contact in March 2020. But finally, on June 1, everything changes.
The waiting game, on both sides, will be over.
It’s a recruiting powder keg, ready to explode.
“It kind of feels like we’re getting ready to run a marathon in June,” Iowa football recruiting director Tyler Barnes said, “but without training for 15 months.
“Every day we sit here like, ‘Are we forgetting something?’ It’s been so long.”
Arguably no program is more ready for this — or has been waiting for this — more than Iowa. The global health crisis and the Big Ten Conference’s season cancellation and (victorious) fight for revival were mere side stories for the Hawkeyes compared to the racial-bias investigation that cast serious questions about the program’s leadership and future viability.
Yet the Hawkeyes arrive to the June 1 start/finish line in a confident place. Not only did they lock up one of their highest-rated classes for 2021 of the Kirk Ferentz era (which according to 247 Sports included seven four-star recruits, Iowa's most since 2005), they’ve made some key moves to be in an excellent June position for the Class of 2022.
How did they survive (and in some cases thrive) during these 15 dark months? And what might we expect in June and beyond? A recent conversation between Barnes and the Des Moines Register helps shed some light.
In recruiting, momentum can be real.
And, sure, luck plays a factor.
But about that momentum …
“A lot of these kids talk to each other so once one kid jumps in the boat,” Barnes said, “they’re more intrigued to do the same.”
An afterthought text message sent by Barnes 14 months ago to Cooper DeJean, a dominant small-school athlete who has created as much buzz as any prospect in Iowa’s Class of 2021, proved critical in starting a chain reaction of successful recruiting moments.
One day in March, Barnes texted DeJean in jest, saying something to the effect of, “What are you waiting for? It’s time to be a Hawkeye.”
“Shockingly,” Barnes said, “he texted me back and said, ‘Coach, I think you’re right.’ And I was just kidding. And it was, 'OK, well, all right.' And … we had a flurry from there.”
DeJean (who Iowa sees as a future safety in the mold of NFL Pro Bowler Micah Hyde) kicked off a string of seven key commitments last spring, which included five of those 247 four-stars: DeJean, wide receivers Arland Bruce IV and Keagan Johnson and offensive linemen Beau Stephens and David Davidkov. That surge proved huge considering the allegations about racial inequities that shook the Iowa program in June. By that time, the Hawkeyes had verbally secured nearly 80% of their eventual class.
The priority then could become convincing their current commitments to stay on board (only one departed) while turning more attention to the Class of 2022 and, as Barnes put it, recruiting “the heck out of them.”
Another crazy thing happened during the pandemic: Kirk Ferentz became … tech-savvy? Barnes, who is married to one of Ferentz’s two daughters, said it’s a misnomer that his father-in-law, who will turn 66 on Aug. 1, bumbles with technology. But still, the use of FaceTime has become a staple for the Hawkeyes’ 23rd-year head coach that will continue.
“Going into pandemic, that just wasn't his thing,” Barnes said of Ferentz. “But I think he's really gotten used to it, and I think he's enjoyed it, too. Because now you can get the kid and the family on the line, and you're setting the dialogue almost like you're in the office.
"It’s so much more personable than talking on a phone call. You get to see their body language. You get to see if they're actually paying attention the whole time. I've had a few Zoom (calls) where kids are playing video games while I'm trying to talk to him.”
Iowa adjusted amid the pandemic but maintained its core principles.
An annual top recruiting goal for Iowa football is to get top targets to campus, in part to dispel the myth that Iowa is 100% cornfields. Iowa City’s diverse and vibrant community with a small-town feel can easily sell itself. With that not viable during the pandemic, the football program created “virtual tours” that it will continue to use moving forward with prospects located in far-away places like Georgia and Florida.
“We can now showcase our campus from afar,” Barnes said, “(to) at least to grab their attention, so maybe they will get in the car or plane and come up here.”
The Hawkeyes are notoriously stingy about scholarship offers and deliberate to extend them. That didn’t change amid the pandemic, even though it might’ve been tempting to take a few more chances on sights unseen. Iowa had 15 Class of 2021 commitments by this time last year; it currently has two in the Class of 2022 in Iowa defensive end Aaron Graves and Kansas linebacker Caden Crawford.
Like all schools, Iowa missed an entire year of in-person evaluations — including camp visits that will be prevalent everywhere in June.
Iowa’s recruiting approach during those 15 dark months?
“We don't need to panic,” Barnes said. “Let's be patient. We know we have June 1 coming. We have a really good board put together that we feel good about right now. We’ll swing away on those guys and see where we are at the end of June.”
Iowa is known for its meticulous research on prospects. Former assistant coach Reese Morgan was known to interview school janitors and teachers to gain conviction about a recruit's character fit. In today’s fast-paced recruiting world, Iowa has continued to find a way to slow down. That was apparent with one anecdote Barnes shared.
He was interviewing a high school football coach recently about a prospect that had Iowa among his 20-plus Division I offers.
“And he’s like, ‘Coach, you’re the second college coach I've heard from in the recruiting process.’ That’s sad,” Barnes said. “How can you offer a kid and not even talk to the guy who’s coached him for three years? Wouldn’t you want his opinion? You would think. But not everybody operates that way. We choose to, and it's just really important to us to get that input.”
How could that possibly be true? That other schools don't talk to high school coaches?
Barnes explained, "They see his highlight reel, they see he’s gotten offer from other schools on Twitter, they shoot a message on Twitter, they get a cell phone number, then they talk to the kid for 40 minutes and then they offer. It’s a quick process, and a lot of schools do that. And that may be just to get the kid’s attention. But we don’t operate that way. We don’t want to offer a kid just to get to his attention.”
Will Iowa’s deliberate approach pay off? Stay tuned.
Normally, Iowa will host roughly 400 prospects between February and May between "junior days," unofficial visits during spring practices and official visits. But, as mentioned, there have been zero hosted visits since March 2020. That’s why June 2021 is so critical, and it's why Barnes made a bold move several months ago to have Iowa well-positioned.
There was some under-the-radar buzz as early as February about the possibility of things opening up June 1. So Barnes and Iowa's recruiting staff made the decision to aggressively set some June camp dates and invite prime prospects to book a spot. Once a visit is on the books, it’s a lot harder to break. Families that make plans usually stick to them. June 1 was eventually cleared for takeoff, and Iowa felt it was in good shape.
“We were probably a little more aggressive than most places initially,” Barnes said.
Programs are allowed 10 camp days. Iowa will host eight camps on six June days. That’ll help get eyes on 2022 and 2023 prospects. Barnes said Iowa’s camps are fuller than ever. Iowa will use its other four dates on satellite camps in Michigan, Chicago, Indianapolis and St. Louis.
People will come. Soon.
An onslaught of commitments nationally are expected, and programs will be racing each other snap them up. Prospects have been waiting for this, too. Understandably, most of them want to see their future college campus of four to five years before committing. And many of them want to pick their schools before their fall football seasons.
Iowa feels like it could’ve had more than two 2022 commitments by now. But … in the name of patience, everything has been pointing toward June.
“We have some guys on our board that we could really push to commit if we wanted to. We don’t really operate that way. We don’t want to pressure kids,” Barnes said. “I think we’re in really good spots with them. We know that when they get here in June, then we can really show them everything here. And, hopefully at that point they feel like this is the right place for them.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.