IOWA CITY, Iowa — LeVar Woods’ phone rang at about 10:30 p.m. on Dec. 19, the night before early signing period began.
Dallas Craddieth’s number popped up on the phone. When the special teams coach answered, the news he was anticipating for 21 months arrived. The uncommitted, hard-hitting St. Louis safety, who originally had planned to sign in February, changed his mind and signed early with the Hawkeyes.
“We were crossing our fingers [it happened] today,” Iowa director of scouting Tyler Barnes told Land of 10 on Dec. 20. “We are excited about that.”
The Hawkeyes should be. They made St. Louis a priority again, identifying high-end players on the recruiting trail in recent years, and Craddieth was the first commitment they secured.
It begs two questions. What qualifies as a recruiting success for the Hawkeyes in the area? And can the Hawkeyes turn St. Louis into a recruiting pipeline?
“I think a win is pulling a couple recruits, whether it’s one or two per year,” Rivals.com reporter Blair Sanderson said. “If they had gone 0-for-the Class of 2018, then it wouldn’t have sat well with fans, judging with how much time they spent recruiting there.”
A growing recruiting hotbed
St. Louis has produced former Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn and NFL All-Pro running back Ezekiel Elliott, but star talent hasn’t always been common there.
That changed with the 2018 class, when five St. Louis-area players earned 4-star Rivals.com ratings, including Craddieth. Iowa offered each of them and one other 3-star prospect.
“I would say this 2018 class, in my last six years of coaching, is probably one of the best ones,” said Hazelwood Central (Mo.) football coach Brent Chojnacki, who coached Craddieth.
It’s not just the 2018 class. The 2019 class is just as loaded. A trio of 4-star prospects hail from the area, and there is arguably more depth than 2018, with a host of 3-star prospects. Iowa has already offered 9 St. Louis-area prospects. One of those, wide receiver Maurice Massey, has committed to Iowa State.
“It’s amazing,” said recruiting analyst Rob Howe of HawkeyeNation.com. “They’ve always had good players in St. Louis, but these last two classes are just loaded with high-end kids. There are a lot of kids there that aren’t high-end that are pretty good, too.”
This kind of talent level is unheard of in St. Louis. It has now produced 8 4-star products in two years. Previously, it took six classes, combining the 4-star prospects from 2012-17, to match the number from the 2018 and 2019 classes.
The talent is legitimate. It’s why Iowa pushed so hard into the area.
“It seems like an area that is exploding in terms of whether it’s high 4-star guys or 3-star guys with Power-5 offers,” Sanderson said.
Iowa and St. Louis history
Iowa used to recruit St. Louis as if it was an extension of the Hawkeye State. Former recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson did very well in the area before leaving the program in 2014.
The Iowa-St. Louis connection produced star players such as wide receiver Marvin McNutt, linebacker Christian Kirksey and Clayborn.
The Hawkeyes signed only one player, and offered only seven, from St. Louis in the 2015-17 classes. Now, they are once again placing emphasis on the area.
“Since the turnover on the coaching staff, Levar Woods has taken over that area and last year he seemed to invest a lot of time, more so on juniors, which ended up being this 2018 class,” Sanderson said.
The St. Louis-area recruits quickly took to Woods. Chojnacki said he is one of the most respected coaches recruiting the area.
“It’s a business for those guys, obviously, but that guy genuinely cares about kids and the kids and parents see it,” Chojnacki said. “The guy knows how to communicate with kids. He knows how to talk to kids and tell a kid that is academically struggling, ‘I want to recruit you.’ He’s not afraid to help a high school coach out by telling a kid to get [his] butt in gear.”
He also wasn’t afraid to play a long game.
Landing Dallas Craddieth
Iowa offered Craddieth in March 2016. The Hawkeyes were his second offer. They were in early on five other 2018 St. Louis prospects, but the recruiting for wide receivers Kamryn Babb and Cameron Brown, defensive tackles Trevor Trout and Michael Thompson and defensive end Ronnie Perkins blew up to a level Iowa couldn’t compete with.
Babb and Brown signed with Ohio State. Perkins signed with Oklahoma. Trout is committed to USC. Thompson is down to Oklahoma or Missouri.
Craddieth’s skill set isn’t that different from the other 2018 prospects. He is athletic and plays with a physical edge. He earned all-state honors as a senior, but the blue bloods never came sniffing.
His recruitment took an old-school approach. He visited several programs, including Iowa multiple times. He took an official visit to Illinois before doing the same with the Hawkeyes.
“Just the whole thing was real deliberate with him, and he was really focused on building relationships with coaches,” Howe said. “I admire him for that. A lot of kids jump the gun a little bit and jump on an offer here or there or are influenced by some bells and whistles. … He really seems like a good fit here because of the way he navigated the process.”
— Dallas Craddieth™ (@D_Cradd5) December 20, 2017
Both Howe and Sanderson felt Iowa was well positioned with Craddieth the entire time. Craddieth planned to wait until February to sign. He wanted to visit Indiana, and Nebraska re-entered his recruiting picture after hiring coach Scott Frost.
In the end, his relationship with the Iowa staff and confidence in defensive coordinator Phil Parker’s developmental skills with defensive backs led him to call Woods and commit on the eve of the early signing period.
“I thought really hard about it, and Iowa just felt like home when I had my official visit, and I really believe Coach Parker can turn me into the player I want to become,” Craddieth told Rivals.com. “I really mixed with the players there already and it just felt right, and it’s a great program.”
Turning St. Louis into a pipeline
Iowa is likely getting started in St. Louis, and Chojnacki is expecting Woods to become more of a fixture in the area.
“LeVar Woods has built some really good connections with the high school coaches around here,” Chojnacki said. “I wouldn’t see why they’d stop recruiting around here. Are they going to take five or six kids out of St. Louis every year? No, but they get top guys like Dallas and maybe another one or two in the next few years, and they’ll be just fine in the St. Louis area.”
That’s the key. For Iowa to call St. Louis recruiting a success, the program probably needs to land a player like Craddieth on an annual basis. The Hawkeyes did it in 2018. The goal should be to replicate that success in 2019.
“I think that’s the case, because Dallas is pretty well regarded down there,” Howe said. “Once you get a guy from that area, and you add it to the history that they have with Kirksey and McNutt and Clayborn and guys like that, even though it goes a while back, you kind of reenergize things.”
The blueprint for any Iowa success in St. Louis likely lies with its recruitment of Craddieth. The Hawkeyes were in early, they built a strong bond and now can point to Craddieth as a reason for a St. Louis kid to call Woods with a late-night commitment.
“We’ll have to see how that impacts Iowa,” Howe said. “Iowa was in early on a lot of those (2019) guys, but we’ll have to see if they can continue to work down there and add to that pipeline, so to speak. It’s not a pipeline yet, but they are trying to build one.”