IOWA CITY, Iowa — Football was a natural outlet for Tristan Wirfs. After all, he stood north of 6-feet and weighed more than 220 pounds as a high school sophomore.
Still, he sometimes wondered if his college future was in baseball. He grew up as a youth-league all-star and loved the sport. But after he attended a summer camp before his junior year of high school in June 2015, Iowa football offered Wirfs.
Just like that the debate was over. A scholarship trumped everything.
“Football was my sport,” Wirfs said. “The decision was pretty easy.”
So was the choice to pick Iowa. The Hawkeyes made it clear he was a priority recruit, no more so than with an early offer. They extended it nearly 18 months before he signed, and the timing let Wirfs, a tackle, know Iowa was serious about him.
It also signaled the future U.S. Army All-American’s place as a centerpiece of Iowa’s Class of 2017.
The easiest way to predict the stars of an Iowa recruiting class is to look at the offer list about a year before Signing Day.
“Early offers are everything right now,” Rivals recruiting reporter Blair Sanderson told Land of 10 in January. “It’s that way with everyone. Unless you’re like Ohio State it’s really hard to land the top ones without being there at the beginning.”
You know what they say about the early bird
The 2017 and 2018 recruiting classes were two of the best in recent Iowa history.
That was credited, in part, to the level of high-end prospects. Eleven of the 42 players signed in those years were 5- or 4-star prospects, according to the 247Sports composite, 247Sports or Rivals rankings. Ten held an offer for nearly a year before signing.
The Hawkeyes offered these four from the Class of 2017 by January 2016.
Iowa offered quarterback Spencer Petras last fall. The other six 4-star signees held offers by February 2017.
In total, 14 of the 2017 and 2018 signees, including tight end Jacob Coons, defensive tackle Noah Shannon and wide receiver Tyrone Tracy, were extremely early offers. That is 31.8 percent of the classes.
Finding the right fit
Why are the early offers important? It’s the best way to land the players that teams prioritize. Prospects commit earlier than ever and value relationships with the first teams to offer them. That philosophy requires programs to offer most players well before their senior years.
“Everything is moving up,” Iowa director of recruiting Tyler Barnes told Land of 10. “There is no denying that. It’s absolutely moving at a faster pace.”
It’s forced the Hawkeyes, who don’t mind playing the long game in recruiting, to adjust. They started rethinking their recruiting strategies after hiring Seth Wallace as recruiting coordinator and promotion of Kelvin Bell to director of on-campus recruiting in 2014.
The staff started identifying both the juniors and underclassmen they thought could thrive in their developmental program and extending offers. The Hawkeyes offered A.J. Epenesa, a 5-star Class of 2017 defensive end, in June 2014.
“We’re not looking at 5-star, 4-star. We look at guys that have reminded us of guys that have done well in our program,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s usually our approach to things.”
Benefits of early offers
Iowa doesn’t seek out top-shelf talent for early offers, but it plays out that way.
As Sanderson points out, it makes sense whether the Hawkeyes are trying to recruit that way or not. Iowa won’t extend an offer to someone it projects might become a Big Ten player. Most times, prospects already demonstrate some skill — size, athleticism, playmaking ability — that can translate into Power 5 conference football.
Their ability often lands them on the field, and in some cases even dominating, as underclassmen in high school. These are the players Sanderson often sees high up on recruiting ranking lists. It’s part of the reason why 71.4 percent of the signees with early offers ended up as 4-star prospects.
“There are diamonds in the rough and players who develop late,” Sanderson said, “but it’s common to see the top players in a class receive scholarships at a young age.”
For the Hawkeyes, the early offer comes with an added benefit. It allows them more time, in some cases up to two years, to build a relationship with a recruit. Bell said he sees a correlation in the number of times a prospect visits campus and the amount of time he interacts with Ferentz.
“The more you can get [Ferentz] around these kids so he really knows [them] and get him around their parents, and then he starts to develop a really deep rapport, and then you get real excited about the kids that you have a pretty good relationship with,” Bell said. “A lot of these kids have been on our campus multiple times in the past year. That is huge for everybody because that is a very, very high level of comfort we have with them.”
How it plays out
Missouri 4-star safety Dallas Craddieth is the poster child for Bell’s theory. His recruitment heated up in December with Illinois, Indiana and Nebraska also in the picture.
He originally had planned to sign in February, but his familiarity and comfort with the Hawkeyes changed his mind. His three visits over 21 months were vital to his commitment.
“The Iowa staff recruited as long and as hard as anyone else did,” said Hazelwood Central (Mo.) coach Brent Chojnacki, who coached Craddieth. “He knew them real well and is comfortable with them. The relationship they build was very important.”
Iowa might not have focused on identifying top-shelf prospects early, but it’s playing out that way yet again 2019.
In-state offensive lineman commits Tyler Endres and Ezra Miller are 4-star prospects on the 247Sports composite. The 247Sports ranks also ranks Iowa tight end pledge Logan Lee (Orion, Ill.) with 4 stars.
Thirty-nine other 2019 4- or 5-star 247Sports composite prospects hold Iowa offers. Some committed elsewhere or haven’t shown much interest in the Hawkeyes.
Others, including 4-star Indiana wide receiver David Bell, 4-star Illinois running back Jirehl Brock and in-state 4-star quarterback Max Duggan, are seriously considering the Hawkeyes.
Who rounds out the class is unknown. But we know this: Those already holding offers will headline the class.