Iowa prides itself on being a development program--and rightfully so. KF and Doyle proudly transform unheralded two star recruits into all Big Ten performers. The names are etched into our collective memory (and a KF presser): Robert Gallery, Bob Sanders, Chad Greenway.
While the occasional Hawkeye departs Iowa City early (hello Dallas Clark and Bryan Bulaga), the overwhelming majority of Hawkeyes complete their four--or five years--in Iowa City. Gallery, Sanders, and Greenway are three notable examples; of more recent vintage, Desmond King and Brandon Scherff spurned the NFL to stay in Iowa City for their senior seasons.
But the times are a changin’. Over the past two years, Iowa has lost six All Big Ten performers (James Daniels, Josh Jackson, Noah Fant, T.J. Hockenson, Amani Hooker, and Anthony Nelson) to the NFL.
(For the record: I support these players jumping to the NFL when the opportunity is there. Football is a brutal sport--one with an incredibly short career shelf life. Go get paid young man).
Here’s the thing though: Iowa is a cyclical program; the Outback Bowl is our mean and then, once every four or five years, we morph into the bullies of the Big Ten. This is the implicit Iowa-Ferentz contract (and conundrum). When Iowa does enjoy a magical season, we rely on once inexperienced freshmen and sophomores maturing into seasoned juniors and seniors. The commonality among KF’s best teams: standout juniors/seniors playing key roles (and delaying surefire NFL status). See Sanders, Bob and Clayborn, Adrian.
As a developmental program (KF proudly states that Iowa is “not the prettiest car on the lot”), Iowa does not have the depth to withstand wholesale NFL attrition. Sure, Iowa has handled the occasional NFL early entry. But with four Hawkeyes departing Iowa City in 2019 (including T.J. Hockenson--only a redshirt sophomore), the Hawkeyes enter 2019 with questions marks--at you guessed it--tight end, defensive line, and safety.
A bigger question--and one more consequential than filling the Fant/Hockenson hole: Should Iowa maintain its “developmental identity”--a program hallmark--considering the bevy of 2018 and 2019 early entries?
My answer--and I suspect KF’s as well: Does Iowa have a choice? While Iowa has improved its recruiting over the years, Iowa is rarely going to compete with the Big Ten’s blue bloods for elite prospects. Even within the Big Ten West, Wisconsin and Nebraska consistently out-recruit Iowa--at least according to the hallowed recruiting rankings (and the semi-objective Omaha World-Herald). Iowa, for better of worse, is a developmental program--one that succeeds through Doyle-izing its unheralded recruits (and, very occasionally, landing the A.J. Epenesas of the world). In a somewhat cruel twist--one that I suspect Captain Kirk didn’t necessarily envision, those unheralded recruits (specifically--Josh Jackson, T.J. Hockenson, and Anthony Nelson) became too good too soon. Iowa’s developmental program: effective--almost too effective. It is a trade-off that Ferentz and staff, I assume, grudgingly accept.
As the calendar flips to the 2019-2020 Hawkeye team, I look forward to identifying future Doyle/program successes (my early hunches: Geno Stone, Chauncey Golston, and--who knows--Brandon Smith take the proverbial next step). If all goes according to plan, those players (along with A.J. Epenesa and Alaric Jackson) will have NFL decisions to make. And Iowa, once again, will have to thread the needle when balancing its development mentality and its players’ NFL ambitions--an admittedly difficult task every calendar year.