IOWA CITY, Iowa — The tweets started as the stream-of-consciousness way millennials communicate. Eno Benjamin would talk up the Hawkeyes, show his love for the program or chat with recruits. Occasionally, he tweeted about his plans to dominate at Kinnick Stadium.
But the tweets never stopped. They started upon his commitment to Iowa in April and continued through the summer and the start of football season. Through it all, a former Hawkeyes star watched and came to a conclusion.
“Even from my perspective I thought his social media presence was just a bit much,” Derrell Johnson-Koulianos said.
Johnson-Koulianos, who clashed with Kirk Ferentz throughout his career, knew it could cause friction with the head coach. Ferentz, after all, repeatedly tells his players that the less you say the less you need to take back.
Meanwhile, Benjamin violated the team’s no-visit policy for commits and continued the social media barrage. A tenuous situation kept getting worse, and Johnson-Koulianos knew the nonstop tweets wouldn’t help the 4-star running back with Ferentz. Benjamin de-committed in October.
“This is not the program to do this with, knowing him as an individual and what he expects,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
Ferentz likes his program run a certain way, and wants a certain kind of player. Nearly 40 years in the coaching profession has left him knowing what he’s out to avoid and what works best for the Hawkeyes.
An outspoken player such as Benjamin certainly isn’t it. No, the ideal Ferentz recruit requires a different mental makeup, one with more blue-collar traits than anything else.
Come Wednesday, Ferentz will sign at least 15 players, nearly all of them holding attributes he seeks, which are as central to the program as he is.
“I’m not searching for my identity anymore,” Ferentz said. “‘We’ve been through that. I know who we are and who we want to be.”
• • •
Reese Morgan may know Ferentz nearly as well as Ferentz’s wife does. Morgan has spent the past 17 years coaching alongside him. The team’s lead in-state recruiter starts reciting the kind of player Ferentz wants almost before the question is finished.
Strong work ethic.
A desire to improve.
A love and passion for the game.
Each trait helps sketch the profile of the teenage version of a guy carrying a lunch pail and wearing a hard hat. It’s what Ferentz covets.
“It all kinds of starts with coach Ferentz — everything we do,” Morgan said. “You have to know what kind of young man is going to be successful here.”
Ferentz realizes the parameters of his program. Iowa isn’t a state overflowing with 4- and 5-star prospects. There are plenty of linemen and players capable of filling out in college. The Hawkeyes are a developmental program, and they embrace it.
That means the players must embrace it, too. The majority won’t arrive on campus ready to play college football from Day One. It requires work. It’s why the staff focuses on a player’s personality as much as his technique.
Director of strength and conditioning Chris Doyle will say enthusiasm is common but endurance is rare. It’s the second part that allows someone like offensive lineman Riley Reiff to walk in the door at 240 pounds and walk out of it a 300-pound first-round pick in the NFL draft.
Ferentz and Doyle are committed to the long-term approach to development, days upon days of work in the weight room and on the field slowly stacking up. Over time, it can turn a 3-star recruit into a Big Ten-caliber performer. A player who doesn’t embrace this concept won’t work out in Iowa City.
“There have been so many guys in our program that have had uncommon endurance, uncommon grit and commitment over time and they were rewarded for it,” Doyle said.
That’s not to say the Hawkeyes are opposed to signing high-end talent. Five-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa and 4-star offensive lineman Tristan Wirfs will sign this week.
But the 2005 class, ranked No. 7 by 247Sports and consisting of nine 4- or 5-star prospects, left a lasting mark. The group didn’t pan out. Tight end Anthony Moeaki went on to a six-year NFL career and offensive lineman Rafael Eubanks started for three years, but most of the group didn’t make an impact.
|OL Dan Doering||5-star||Injury-filled career|
|OL Dace Richardson||5-star||Started parts of 3 seasons|
|TE Anthony Moeaki||5-star||NFL|
|FB Kalvin Bailey||4-star||Transfer|
|DT Ryan Bain||4-star||Transfer|
|QB Jake Christensen||4-star||Transfer|
|OL Rafael Eubanks||4-star||3-year starter|
|DT Alex Kanellis||4-star||Injury ended career|
|WR Trey Stross||4-star||4-year team member|
Iowa didn’t avoid star players in future classes but appeared to become more selective. Of the Hawkeyes’ 16 4-star prospects since 2009, six made it to the NFL, including offensive lineman Bryan Bulaga, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz. Two more 4-star players— defensive tackles Jaleel Johnson and Faith Ekakitie — will look to join the pro ranks this spring.
If the Hawkeyes are to recruit a highly touted prospect it’s going to be someone who shows nearly every trait on Morgan’s checklist.
“Everyone has talent,” Doyle said. “I think that talent is overrated, and when you bring certain kids in that are 4-star, 5-star and they come from a certain school or have a certain pedigree, their resume works better. But then with the intangibles, the things that are hard to measure when assigning stars to athletes, is grit, determination, the family makeup. What is going to happen when this kid faces some adversity?”
There is a distinctive vibe about the way Iowa goes about its business. Ferentz said he is upfront with recruits about it.
This is Iowa football. This is what it takes to play here — and the payoff can be immense.
Walk-on Dallas Clark became an All-Big Ten and NFL tight end. Two-star linebacker Josey Jewell became a Butkus Award finalist. Three-star running back Shonn Greene became an Iowa legend.
“You’ve got to have good recruits to be successful,” Ferentz said. “I get that. What’s really important is identifying and finding players that are going to fit here in our program and thrive in our environment, and it’s not for everybody.”
• • •
Brian Ferentz worked his way up from scouting assistant to tight ends coach over three NFL seasons. He watched as teams would hand out personality tests to prospective draftees. The pros try to make a science out of figuring out if a player will fit with a team.
It didn’t take Brian Ferentz, Iowa’s offensive coordinator, long to learn that a standardized test won’t work with recruiting. It doesn’t help him learn who a player is, the one thing he is after when evaluating an offensive lineman. It’s the position Iowa most commonly puts in the NFL.
He believes environment and socio-economic and geographic indicators don’t serve as predictors. Things vary from player to player. Getting a feel for a recruit can be as complex as a basic equation of astrophysics.
“There is nothing simple about it,” Brian Ferentz said.
The offensive line coach the past five season, Brian Ferentz is after the same characteristics as Morgan. Unselfishness, competitiveness, toughness and physicality top the list.
He can be slow throwing out offers. It can take time for him to become convinced a lineman possesses the necessary traits. Ultimately, he’s not too focused on the athletic part of his evaluation process.
“There are a lot of guys that have the physical ability to play at our level,” Brian Ferentz said.
He spends as much time as possible evaluating the person. He will do it on the field. Brian Ferentz loves bringing in prospects for camps, where he can gauge their response when forced to deal with adversity.
“You are going to get hit,” he said. “You are going to get knocked down. Will you get up? Will you keep fighting?”
He observes how players interact around school, and with their coaches and family. He wants to get to know the people important in their lives because those influences will impact who the player will become in college. Brian Ferentz jokes that he once took mental notes on a 9-year-old wrestling a dog during a home visit.
He never knows what will convince him a lineman fits with Iowa’s ideals.
“It’s hard to quantify, but you kind of know it when you see it,” Brian Ferentz said.
It was hard to tell with All-America guard Sean Welsh. He didn’t come to Iowa for a padded camp. Brian Ferentz needed to rely on evaluations of his mental makeup to make an offer.
It was easier to know with center James Daniels. The Hawkeyes landed his older brother, LeShun Daniels, and the coaching staff knew him well.
A 21-minute highlight tape of Iowa’s latest offensive line commit, 2018 guard Jeff Jenkins, likely played a role in his commitment.
There is no blueprint for what secures an offer, but when the Hawkeyes identify what they’re looking for they don’t hesitate.
“We will put our chips right there and see what happens,” Doyle said. “If he is hungry, humble and smart and comes from a good background, I think the record shows the Iowa kids do pretty good that have those characteristics.”
• • •
At Iowa, culture is an equation — values plus behavior minus what you tolerate.
For years, Doyle felt it was values and behavior. He learned over time to add the last part.
“If you tolerate enough junk going on in your hallways or in your locker room or on the practice field or in the weight room or on the field, then you are going to pay for it eventually,” Doyle said.
Culture matters, especially at Iowa. Ferentz and Doyle spent years building it with players made in the Ferentz mold. They want to keep it that way.
The system, with a focus on work and following what the coaches require, has produced 135 wins, two Big Ten championships and a Big Ten West Division title. There is a reason former Hawkeyes Kevonte Martin-Manley and Anthony Hitchens call their clothing line 2-star and they center their brand around Iowa’s ability to turn under-recruited players into stars.
EARN THE 5TH. is a LIFESTYLE. EARN THE 5TH. is a MINDSET. EARN THE 5TH. is a WORK ETHIC. EARN THE 5TH. is a GOAL. EARN THE 5TH. is TWOSTAR.
— K. Martin-Manley (@KMM_11) January 22, 2017
Incoming players must bend to Iowa’s ways. It’s why former Hawkeyes linebacker Pat Angerer would tell every freshman not to be late, shut up, work hard and make Iowa football the most important thing in their lives.
“What has been proven year in and year out is if you do what coach Doyle says and you do what coach Ferentz says for four, four-and-a-half years, you are going to be successful,” Angerer said.
Former Hawkeyes say most of the team falls in line. It’s a byproduct of Iowa trying to load its roster with players who embrace the “we over me” mentality, avoid becoming distractions and try to leave the jersey in a better place. Those who do that become captains and public faces of the program.
“Typically (it’s) the blue-collar guys, who maybe are 2-star guys, who are hard workers and don’t say much and come in to work every day,” Johnson-Koulianos said.
Those who don’t completely buy in to the expectations become outsiders — a word used by several former players. They can get squeezed to the edges and marginalized.
This is one of the reasons Johnson-Koulianos believes it’s best that Benjamin ended up at Arizona State. He should know. His outgoing DJK persona didn’t fit with what Ferentz wants to build.
Ferentz isn’t one for self promotion. Johnson-Koulianos, who is second all-time in receiving yards at Iowa, is certain his talent is why he stuck around the program for parts of five seasons.
Iowa dismissed him from the team following an arrest on drug charges in November 2010. He later pleaded guilty to marijuana possession while other drug charges were dismissed.
Iowa wasn’t the perfect fit for his personality. He knows that now, and in hindsight would consider going elsewhere.
“If I had to do it over, I’m being absolutely honest with you, I would not choose the same program,” Johnson-Koulianos said. “There were positives there. I broke school records. I had a really great career, but there was also a lot of friction there.”
It’s not so much that Ferentz expects a team of robots, but there are rules, principles and expectations to follow.
“He has a big spectrum of guys,” Martin-Manley said. “It’s almost like a conference and a division.
“For the most part, the conference is the kids taking care of business, tough-minded kids. Guys that have been under-looked but are good. The division is you have players from different areas. You can be from Pennsylvania and then you can have a guy from Cali.”
When it all comes together, and the calculations of the culture equation add up to a positive number, Doyle knows the result will be a season likely worth remembering.
“If we are true to our culture we usually play hard and compete well,” Doyle said.
• • •
Angerer recalled lining up for his first day of workouts in the summer of 2005; he wanted to do the right thing and impress the coaches. He thought the day was going great — until Ed Hinkle pulled him aside.
Angerer was doing it all wrong. Hinkle said to follow whatever he did and the freshman would be fine.
“My first year I tried to emulate him,” Angerer said.
For Jaleel Johnson, nothing beat the feeling of real practice reps with the second-team defense during his sophomore season. He wanted more and he knew there was only one way to grab it. He copied the defensive tackles above him on the depth chart until he consistently saw the field in 2014.
“Once that happens you never stop doing it,” Johnson said. “You never stop doing things that put you in a position to go out there and play.”
One player, passing down the Iowa way to another. One class doing what it can to help the next try to win.
“They have a great culture there,” Angerer said. “They have been doing it for a long time and it definitely works.”