Iowa resists temptation to change in wake of 2015 success

Kirk Ferentz and Iowa signed 24 players in 2016. And 22 of the signees earned three stars in the ESPN rankings. AP Photo/AJ Mast

If you forgot over the past six weeks to notice Iowa football amid the noise blasting from other corners of the Big Ten, well, you’re forgiven.

The Hawkeyes, who went 12-2 and marched to Pasadena for the first time in 25 years -- only to get blown out by Stanford in the Rose Bowl -- quietly went about business in recruiting as a few of their competitors generated daily headlines.

Iowa signed 24 players last week. In predictable fashion, 22 of the signees earned three stars in the ESPN rankings. It means one of two things:

Either the recruiting experts and analysts made little sense of the future Hawkeyes, so they all get stamped with the average, wait-and-see label; or Iowa coaches know exactly who they are, who they want, where they want to go, and, presumably, how to get there.

I’ll go with something close to Option B.

Whatever temptation existed to alter his approach after one of the most successful seasons in Iowa history, 60-year-old coach Kirk Ferentz resisted it.

“What we’re going to try to do is sell what we have,” Ferentz said last week in announcing the class, which ranked 49th nationally, seventh in the Big Ten and third in the West Division. “We let our prospects know it’s going to be a lot of hard work.

“Not to be a fun killer, but that’s really our message.”

That is the crux of Iowa football -- and Iowa recruiting: What you see is what you get. The latest taste of success won’t change much of anything.

Iowa did not sign a single four-star prospect this year. From 2012 to 2015, the Hawkeyes snagged 12 four-star recruits.

Two turned into key contributors in 2015. From the group of signees over that time who did not earn four stars in recruiting, Iowa molded the backbone of a team that won 12 straight games out of quarterback C.J. Beathard, center Austin Blythe, cornerback Desmond King, running back Jordan Canzeri, safety Jordan Lomax, linebacker Josey Jewell, defensive ends Nate Meier and Drew Ott. The list goes on.

The normal laws of recruiting did not apply at Iowa last season. And reason exists to believe it can continue as the Hawkeyes refuse to get sucked into a game they can’t win.

“If I gotta stand on my head to get a guy or tell a funny story,” Ferentz said, “we’re in big trouble.”

For Iowa, the greatest challenge, he said, involves attracting recruits to visit.

“And once we get them here, I feel like we’ve got a really good chance without any fancy gymnastics, hopefully, because I’m not the most entertaining guy in the world," said the coach, entering his 18th season in charge of the Hawkeyes,

Simply because Iowa knows itself so well, there’s still a place for him in this recruiting world.

The bump, as a result of Iowa’s 12-win season, figures to come with the Class of 2017, Ferentz said. And yes, it has secured commitments from two prospects in the ESPN Junior 300 -- Illinois defensive end A.J. Epenesa, whose list of scholarship offers includes Alabama, Florida State and USC, and homegrown guard Juan Harris, coveted by the likes of Michigan and Texas.

The bulk of that class, though, figures to look like this 2016 group, marked by its striking similarity to the complexion of Iowa’s current roster. The group of new Hawkeyes included eight players pegged to play tight end or defensive end, with seven standing 6-foot-4 or 6-5 and seven weighing from 220 to 260 pounds.

It featured key wins in enemy territory for Wisconsin-bred quarterback Nate Stanley, Nebraska tight end Noah Fant, Illinois products Amani Jones, Nick Niemann and Emmanuel Rugamba, linebacker Kyle Taylor of Maryland and four players from Michigan.

The biggest win, perhaps, involved Detroit offensive tackle Alaric Jackson, who declined a chance to visit Michigan State, rebuffed a late offer from Michigan and picked the Hawkeyes over Nebraska and Iowa State.

“Some players, I think their whole life revolves around this process,” Ferentz said. “He [Jackson] seemed very unaffected by it. Not that he was minimizing or neglecting it, but he wasn’t overwhelmed by the process.”

Sounds like a solid fit for the Hawkeyes.