I once spent $300 to get out of Decorah.
Let me back up a bit. Decorah is a lovely town, for my money the loveliest in Iowa. Toppling Goliath is from there. The Dave Matthews live album from Luther College was made there. It's a remarkably cool place. Decorah is also practically impossible to get to, to the point that when my ride out of Decorah last summer stood me up, I didn't have many options. There are no rental cars in Decorah, I found out. There is a taxi service that will take you to the Cedar Rapids Airport, but you need to book it days in advance to make sure a driver is available for the two-hour trip over 100 miles of back roads. It takes a legit two hours because there's no freeway to Decorah. There's barely a highway. So I rented a U-Haul and drove it one-way to Cedar Rapids, where my original ride was supposed to take me. It was as good as can be done in Decorah. Because, as I said, Decorah is practically impossible to get to.
Josey Jewell is from Decorah, and if you wanted find how a unanimous All-American linebacker and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year was completely overlooked in the high school recruiting process, trying to get out of Decorah is a pretty good place to start. It would not be easy for an Iowa recruiter to see Jewell play a home game without a three-hour head start. For anyone outside of eastern Iowa -- literally the rest of the country, when it comes to FBS-level football -- it would have been practically impossible, the kind of financial and time outlay reserved for four-star recruits. And Jewell was not a four-star recruit, probably because nobody could come see him play. It was a recruiting Catch-22.
There are plenty of freeways in Newark, New Jersey. There is a perfectly decent airport with daily non-stop flights to Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, at last check. In fact, it might be faster, easier and cheaper to get round trip from Iowa City to Newark than it is to get from Iowa City to Decorah. But there isn't much football in Newark, so little, in fact, that Akrum Wadley attended a fully-functioning high school that had no football team.
But Iowa had Darrell Wilson, a man who knew New Jersey football like Reese Morgan knows Iowa, and Wilson caught wind of Wadley as the then-Temple commit was leading a different high school to heights never before seen, the sort of state-semifinal level common in Iowa but unheard of in Newark. Wilson got him an offer, and Wadley committed to Iowa, the lowest-rated recruit in its class that year, behind even Josey Jewell.
Matt VandeBerg of Brandon, South Dakota, just outside Sioux Falls -- the spot where Iowa, South Dakota and Minnesota meet -- was the victim of a different kind of geography. Sure, Brandon has access to a pair of interstate highways and a decent airport, but as Ed Orgeron famously said while at Ole Miss, recruiting planes don't fly that far north. There are so few people in the Dakotas, so small a pool of perceived talent, that Rivals doesn't bother to rank the best players in those states most years. This is despite the fact that North Dakota State is the most dominant program in FCS and routinely beats FBS teams with those players.
Iowa found him where it found guys like Chad Greenway before, waiting to be noticed. VandeBerg was going to grayshirt at Iowa as a 168-pound freshman until something broke in his favor and a scholarship materialized. The rest was history.
They don't rank the best players in South Dakota, but they rank the best players in Michigan. In Desmond King's case, they ranked somewhere between 15 and 28 of them ahead of him. King was not a victim of geography but of body type, a tweener that seemed too big to play cornerback and too slow to play running back. He was headed to Ball State until Phil Parker -- who is to Michigan what Morgan is to Iowa and Wilson is to New Jersey -- threw him an offer in the last two weeks before Signing Day. He started his second game on campus and never lost his position, picking up two All-American awards and a Thorpe Award as the nation's best defensive back along the way.
Those four players, all in the same class and successful beyond any expectations while at Iowa, embody Iowa's recruiting aesthetic. Kirk Ferentz's staff isn't afraid to play where everyone else plays -- Chicago remains Iowa's most fertile recruiting territory, with St. Louis, Indianapolis, the mid-Atlantic and Florida all working as pipelines -- but Iowa makes its money by going places and finding guys that are otherwise ignored, by pounding the pavement in Iowa and South Dakota and Detroit and sometimes even Newark, by working connections and looking for football players no matter what the hangups of other coaches might be. If you want to look for the secret sauce of Iowa's success with the overlooked of the recruiting pool, look no further than the geography of those players, and the backstory of those players, and the now-obvious reasons why they should have never been overlooked. Things as simple as high school pedigree, geographic location, or positional fits.
Look at Nathan Bazata in Howells, Nebraska, his only other offer from South Dakota State, now throwing bones in Memorial Stadium while blowing up the Cornhuskers who wouldn't give him a second thought.
Look at Nate Meier before him, a two-star eight-man running back from Tabor, Iowa, who played more snaps at Iowa than three of the four-star recruits taken in the same class.
Jordan Canzeri was buried in snow in upstate New York. Kevonte Martin-Manley was another Phil Parker find out of Michigan. Anthony Hitchens was a tweener halfback also found by Parker. Tanner Miller was from Iowa's backyard and headed to UNI until the last week of the 2010 cycle. Micah Hyde was recruited by Parker as a high school quarterback. Adam Robinson was from Des Moines and overlooked as too slow. Mike Daniels and Shonn Greene were out of New Jersey. Two-stars, all of them.
Iowa has stepped out of those bounds before to pursue two-star recruits, with far less success. Finding diamonds in the rough in Alabama (like 2015 halfback Eric Graham) or suburban St. Louis (like Jonathan Parker) or Florida (like Adrian Falconer) isn't as easy. That rough is picked through. Everyone wants to find those guys, and everyone has a chance. If you haven't been identified as a potential recruit when playing high school football in Texas, odds are not in your favor at the next level.
But there's a lot of rough in Iowa, and South Dakota, and Nebraska, and -- despite their populations -- New Jersey and Michigan and northern Ohio. Iowa has (or, in the case of the Garden State, had) institutional knowledge that allows its coaches to find the unfindable, recruit the unrecruited. And that's where Iowa's mentality -- chip firmly on shoulder, respect obviously lacking from everyone else -- comes into play. Iowa is better than anyone else in the country at identifying workable raw material with the proper motivation, and then using that motivation to build a finished product in Chris Doyle's weight room and Kirk Ferentz's program. It's easy to say that Iowa's geography works against it, what with the small and aging population and two major-conference schools divvying that population up. But it's also clear that Iowa's system wouldn't work in any place where the spotlight is brighter, where the competition was more fierce, because Josey Jewell and Akrum Wadley probably aren't two-star recruits with no comparable offers if they don't come from where they came from.
On this Signing Day, Iowa welcomes one of its best on-paper recruiting classes of the last decade, with a handful of four-star commitments and the sort of confidence conveyed by big offer sheets throughout. The four-star recruits will get the most publicity in the coming days and weeks, and for good reason.
But look at the four two-star recruits Iowa is bringing in today, and see if this looks familiar:
- Seth Benson, a linebacker from Sioux Falls whose only other offers were from the four Dakota programs;
- Kaevon Merriweather, a defensive back from suburban Detroit recruited by Phil Parker, who nobody knew about because he only started playing high school football as a senior;
- Samson Evans, a high school option quarterback from Crystal Lake, Illinois, the classic "tweener" without a position or a Power Five offer who just so happened to be Illinois player of the year;
- Logan Klemp, a linebacker with a handful of FCS offers who doesn't play for Decorah, but might as well: He literally comes from Jewell, Iowa.
At any other program in the country, those four guys would be afterthoughts destined to wash out when more talent came up in later classes. At Iowa, those four guys are a coin flip at worst to be playing on Sundays in 2023.
There are plenty of opportunities to ask whether Iowa football knows what it's doing. There is at least one point in every season where we ask if this entire enterprise needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. But on Signing Day 2018, the most hopeful day of the year for every program, we can remember what Kirk Ferentz and his staff have done in the past, look at what they have done in the present, and take some solace in this unquestionable fact: When it comes to finding their guys, no matter how remote those guys might be, they know how to get there.