IOWA CITY, Iowa — With only a handful of top-shelf Division I prospects and another Power 5 program within its state borders, the Iowa football program must invade other locations in search of talent.
Traditionally, Iowa considers players within a six-hour driving radius of Iowa City, along with Ohio, as part of its core recruiting zone. That doesn’t stop the coaching staff from extending beyond that footprint to pick up players, however, and the program adjusts its priorities every few years.
When Bret Bielema was on staff early in coach Kirk Ferentz’s tenure, Iowa hit Florida hard, and it was productive. The foundation of Ferentz’s early success came from Florida, including defensive tackle Colin Cole, linebackers Abdul Hodge, Edmond Miles and Fred Barr, defensive backs Antwan Allen, Benny Sapp and Marcus Paschal and wide receivers C.J. Jones and Maurice Brown. Of course 2002 Heisman Trophy runner-up Brad Banks is a Florida native discovered at a Mississippi junior college.
Once Bielema left for Kansas State in 2002, the talent pipeline from Florida to Iowa trickled rather than flowed. Sure, Iowa grabbed two-year starting quarterback Jake Rudock and three-year starting cornerback Greg Mabin from Florida but mostly the recruits became future transfers. By 2013, Ferentz announced plans to abandon Florida and instead shifted his focus to Texas after hiring assistants Greg Davis and Bobby Kennedy. They worked in Texas for decades so their ties were obvious. Another hire, Chris White, was assigned to the Washington, D.C., and New Jersey areas.
That strategy didn’t pan out. Last year, Davis retired and both White and Kennedy were dismissed. Iowa didn’t pick up a single recruit in Texas this cycle and only one in Florida. That came on a recommendation from Paschal, who coached wide receiver Calvin Lockett in Largo, Fla.
But look for a stronger recruiting focus in Florida and Texas for the 2019 class. Receivers coach Kelton Copeland. who was hired in February 2017, grew up in the Miami area. New running backs coach Derrick Foster recruited the South in his previous stops. Linebackers coach/assistant defensive coordinator Seth Wallace also will hit Florida.
Iowa also landed a Georgia recruit for the second straight cycle, but Ferentz is unsure if it will become a annual focus.
“I think Kelton ― his familiarity is more in Florida ― he worked pretty hard both sides and did a really nice job that way,” Ferentz said. “And there were one or two players we were close on moving on that we ended up not moving on, but we felt good about them as players and people. He did a really good job there.
“I’m still wrestling with the Atlanta, the Georgia [area]. The quality of football down there is great, not unlike Ohio. [N.C. State All-American defensive end] Bradley Chubb was a guy that was on our list, never made a trip here. The key is can you get them on campus. That’s the key. Anytime you go further away, that’s something we’re going to talk about in the weeks ahead. We’re going to look at our football stuff. We’ll talk about recruiting, and we’ll talk about the areas and how much time do we invest here and there.”
Special teams coach LeVar Woods has made inroads in Texas and will continue to stay involved in the Dallas Metroplex. He also has focused on St. Louis and helped recruit 5-star defensive end A.J. Epenesa in 2017 and Rivals’ 4-star safety Dallas Craddieth this year.
Whether Iowa continues to more than dabble in Pennsylvania and the Northeast is undetermined. That also was a staple for Ferentz in the early years and pulled out key starters Bob Sanders, Jovon Johnson and Ed Hinkel. Once former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe left for the NFL in 2012, Iowa didn’t venture farther northeast than the Cleveland suburbs.
That also could change. O’Keefe is back as quarterbacks coach, and he recruited wide receiver Nico Ragaini from West Haven, Conn. For the second straight season, Iowa snagged a Pennsylvania product.
“I think you look at the areas every year just to try to play to a coach’s strength,” Iowa recruiting coordinator Kelvin Bell said. “A guy that I worked with for a long time, Bernie Wyatt, said recruiting is about relationships. It’s all about relationships. It would be foolish to not put a coach in a place where he has ties. Because those are the guys who are going to tell you the real deal with these kids.
“You walk into any high school and the coach doesn’t know you, he knows you’re from an FBS school but doesn’t know you, of course he’s going to sell you his kid. He’s not going to tell you the real deal about him. The better the relationship you have with the high school coach, the more information you’re going to find out about those kids.”
With O’Keefe’s ties, Ferentz said Iowa will maintain a recruiting focus in the Northeast. As for his hometown of Pittsburgh, Ferentz still plans to stay away after a painful recruiting loss to Penn State over current Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee in 2005. Lee played football at Ferentz’s alma mater of Upper St. Clair.
“I just ran into somebody who was good friends of Sean Lee and Sean Lee’s dad, in my hometown over the weekend,” Ferentz said. “Anybody else tells me about how Sean Lee wanted to go to Iowa … tough to get a kid from Pittsburgh.”