Every football fan knows the Big 10's recent powerhouses: Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Wisconsin. These teams have all been at the top of the league rankings, and national rankings for some time now. The University of Iowa on the other hand, has not been in that conversation except for the 2015 team, which was overrated to put it nicely. Head coach Kirk Ferentz and the Hawkeyes haven't won a B1G championship since 2004 and have only played in 1 since then, losing to Michigan State in 2015.
The point of this article is not to bash Iowa's lack of success on the field but to compliment their success in sending prospects to the NFL. The most succesful positons have been O-linemen, Tight Ends, and DBs, but they have also produced some great linbackers and D-linemen. What really impresses me about the Hawkeye alums is the "hit rate" they have in the NFL, meaning they live up to or exceed expectations.There aren't a lot of high pick busts, there are a good amount of mid-late round picks that have outperformed their draft position, and there are even undrafted guys who have been able to stick around the league. Looking through their last 10 draft classes (2010-2019) there are Hawkeye alums littered throughout the NFL with 37 draft picks, and 39 players currently on NFL rosters or in training camps. There are some big name guys in there too such as George Kittle of the 49ers, Brian Bulaga of the Packers, Desmond King of the Chargers, Micah Hyde in Buffalo, and more. Not to mention they just had 2 Tight Ends picked in the 1st round of the 2019 NFL draft in TJ Hockenson (8th overall) and Noah Fant (20th overall).
They are poised to have another solid class of draft prospects for 2020, starting with DE AJ Epenesa who has been getting some 1st round talk. He is followed by the best bookend tackles in the Big 10 in Alaric Jackson, PFF's highest graded pass protector in the conference, and Bruce Feldman's #1 "Freak" in college football, Tristan Wirfs, who shattered program records in the weight room, and posted a 35 inch vertical at 320 lbs. Last but not least is QB Nate Stanley, who possesses all the physical tools and the ideal body type scouts look for in a QB. Stanley could've come out last year but chose to return to improve his draft stock. I'm not sure how he will fare on draft weekend in 2020's loaded class of QBs but he will get a shot somewhere.
Just so we're clear, I'm not saying more guys from Iowa should be drafted just because they played for Iowa, but I am saying that for some reason, guys who come through Iowa City are a good bet to work out in the NFL in some form or another. After some deep thought and a little bit of research I've come up with a few things to help explain why this may be.
1. Kirk Ferentz is a great coach who doesn't get enough credit. He is the longest tenured coach in college football at his current school, going into his 21st season as the head coach. He has stayed physically and mentally sharp by working out 6 days a week, going to NFL training camps and coaching clinics, and he hasn't been afraid to adopt change and take risks. At his core he is a teacher, saying he would love to be an O-line coach again because it is "The most fun I ever had, being and assisstant coach... That's just pure teaching" and he is a former Engish philosophy teacher as well. This shows in how he is able to develop guys who weren't highly touted recruits into legit NFL players.
2. Keeping with the theme of player deveopement, Iowa has one of the best strength and conditioning programs in the nation, led by coach Chris Doyle who came to Iowa 21 years ago along with Ferentz. Doyle is the highest paid strength coach in college football at $750,000 per year for a reason. Doyle has sent 210 athletes to the professional ranks in 24 years across NFL, NBA, and NHL. He was certified as a Master Strength and Conditioning Coach in 2012, the highest honer a S&C coach can receive. If you want an example of his work, watch Tristan Wirfs hang clean 450 lbs 4 times and make it look easy.
3. Other schools didn't do their due diligence in recruiting. Looking back at the recruitment of guys like TJ Hockenson, Noah Fant, AJ Epenesa, Tristan Wirfs, Alaric Jackson, Desmond King, and so on and so forth, you find yourself wondering why none of the bigger powerhouses recruited these guys. Fant was the #1 player in the state of Nebraska, Hockenson was a state champ and record breaker in Iowa, and Epenesa was one of the biggest recruits in the midwest but somehow none of the top schools to offer him were able to recruit him better than Iowa which usually comes down to effort and homework. Wirfs was an obvious freak athlete who was a state champ in wrestling and track, but only had 2 offers coming out of high school, and Jackson and King were both Detroit products who didn't receive offers from their presumed favorites, the Michigan Wolverines. Both were also passed over by Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State, and all the out of region Power 5 schools. Most schools after King wanted him as a RB, and a look at Michigan's Tackles will tell you how big a mistake not offering Jackson was. That was a very long-winded way of saying that the Big 10 powers and Notre Dame all passed over these guys who are legitimate NFL level players/ prospects. Kirk Ferentz has been the beneficiary of guys like these being overlooked, taking 3 star recruits (minus Epenesa) and turning them into NFL players. I am also a believer in the "chip on the shoulder" factor as well and being under-recruited is an easy way to put on on a guy.
Iowa is not Alabama or Ohio State but the Hawkeyes are one of the best in terms of NFL talent if you're looking for the most bang for your buck when you take in all the factors. Taking middle of the pack recruits and turning them into legit NFL players is something special and a lot of that credit can be given to Kirk Ferentz and the coaching staff for molding young men into the best versions of themselves. For fans of pure football players who are well coached, work their tail off, and play with something to prove; don't sleep on the Hawkeyes when they hit the NFL.