IOWA CITY, Iowa — To understand the Iowa Class of 2018, you need to know who D.J. Johnson is.
The cornerback from Indianapolis was a ballhawk in high school. He’s physical, athletic and the kind of defensive back the Hawkeyes seek. He might play as a freshman.
And he is the sixth-best player in the class. At least, according to 247Sports.
Most years, especially lately, Johnson would be the headliner in the class, not just another member. It speaks to the depth — and amount of potential impact players Iowa landed — that Johnson is almost an afterthought.
It’s also why this National Signing Day is such an intriguing one. The Hawkeyes brought home their best class since 2011. And when paired with the 2017 class, it has the potential to be the backbone of something special.
“We are really pleased with how the class came together,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “Extremely pleased, quite frankly.”
It may not sound like much, but that is the press conference equivalent of Ferentz doing a backflip. His default Signing Day position is reserved. He only deviates from it when something really gets his attention.
Iowa recruiting rankings
|Year||Rivals Ranking||247 Ranking|
Why the 2018 team rankings are important
A successful National Signing Day doesn’t guarantee future wins. Football doesn’t work that way. But there is a correlation between team recruiting rankings and making the College Football Playoff, as Rob Howe of HawkeyeNation.com points out.
It makes sense. Not every player hits. Some fail to develop, injuries impact others and a few transfer out of every class. The more 5-star or 4-star players a team brings in, the higher the odds some of those prospects make an impact.
Iowa isn’t Alabama. It isn’t going to sign a top-10 team anytime soon and a class ranked in the 30s is about as good as it gets with the Hawkeyes. Still, the theory behind why hoarding talent matters still holds true for a developmental program.
It’s common for Iowa signees to outperform their recruiting rankings. The Hawkeyes are quick to mention how under-the-radar prospects like Josey Jewell, Desmond King and Akrum Wadley transformed into stars.
Iowa’s chance of developing impact players increases when those late-blooming prospects are paired with a larger pool of 4-star caliber signees.
In theory, the higher-ranked players are the more complete prospects. They are better athletes with more fully formed skills and are in better position to stand out on game day. That’s why Iowa’s desire to find cultural fits with these types of players should intrigue the fan base.
It’s also why Iowa’s ranking of No. 39 on Rivals and No. 40 on 247Sports matters in this class.
Why the players in the 2018 class are important
The players in the class are just as important as the ranking this year. This is where the potential of this class stands out.
Six players, quarterback Spencer Petras, defensive end John Waggoner, defensive tackle Tyler Linderbaum, offensive lineman Jeff Jenkins, defensive backs Julius Brents and Dallas Craddieth and Johnson hold 4-star ratings from either Rivals or 247Sports. Linderbaum was a U.S. Army All-American, as good of an indicator about player talent level as any.
The depth of 4-star prospects is uncommon for an Iowa class.
The strength of the class is the defense. The defensive backs are the top position group with Brents, Craddieth and Johnson capable of playing from Day 1.
The defensive line is nearly as strong. Waggoner and Linderbaum lead the way, but junior college transfer Daviyon Nixon is in the best position to start. The 3-star defensive tackle turned into a playmaker at Iowa Western Community College and fills a need of an instant impact player at defensive tackle.
The defensive line highlights the mix within the class of top-end players and the promise some less heralded recruits possess.
Quarterback is the most important position on the field and landing a potential multi-year year in Spencer Petras, who his high school coach compares to John Elway, is never a bad thing.
Not every prospect will hit, but recruiting is a lot like a 50-50 raffle. The more tickets you hold, the better you chance at claiming the prize.
Why it is all important
One strong recruiting class is nice. Putting together multiple years of classes with impact players together gives a program a chance at doing something great.
The Class of 2018 is the foundation. There are other key pieces from 2017 and 2019 to supplement this group.
The Hawkeyes landed four 5-star or 4-star players in 2017, led by defensive tackle A.J. Epenesa and tackle Tristan Wirfs. They already hold three 4-star commitments in 2019.
Iowa typically doesn’t wade into these types of recruiting waters. Iowa hasn’t amassed this much talent in a decade.
It doesn’t guarantee anything, but these kind of players can become the foundation for teams that post double-digit wins and contend for Big Ten division titles or outright championshipa.
Those are lofty tasks. But that’s what is potentially in play when someone with Johnson’s skills is the sixth best prospect in the class.