Tony Lombardi didn’t know what was going to happen to his Cedar Rapids kids.
Last July, the Cedar Rapids Washington football coach took his skill position players to a 7-on-7 competition in the Chicago suburbs. It was a big Nike tournament, drawing Class 8A (the biggest class in Illinois) schools such as Bolingbrook and Riverside Brookfield. A 7-on-7 drill is a passing exercise, pitting a combination of quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receivers against a combination of linebackers and defensive backs.
There are no linemen in 7-on-7, which, you would think, puts a team from Iowa at a disadvantage. Linemen come from Iowa, not skill position players.
“We went down there, this team from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, no one ever heard of,” Lombardi said, “and I think we played seven games that day, the defending state champion and the state runner-up and a bunch of ranked teams. No one came within four touchdowns of us.”
The Warriors were led to a 9-0 record in the tourney by wide receiver Keenan Davis, who’ll sign his national letter of intent today to play college football for the University of Iowa. The quarterback was Wyatt Suess, who’ll walk on at the UI. One of the running backs was Andre Dawson, who’ll go into his senior season at Washington holding scholarship offers from Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin and Kansas.
The Hawkeyes’ 2009 recruiting class, which signs on the dotted line today, is highlighted by homegrown skill position players.
Davis, a 6-foot-3, 200-pounder, picked the Hawkeyes over a mountain of regional offers, including Oklahoma, Arizona State and Nebraska. Out of Sioux City, Brandon Wegher’s recruiting went national. The 5-11, 206-pounder picked up offers from Penn State, Auburn and Texas Tech before he picked the Hawkeyes last August. Mount Pleasant’s Jordan Cotton, who played running back for the Panthers but will be a wide receiver at Iowa, chose the Hawkeyes over Kansas, Wisconsin and Colorado.
Iowa’s last two recruiting classes produced 16 players who saw the field in their first years on campus. If this class puts five on the field, you have to think these three might be the first in line.
In fact, there might already be a spot for Wegher.
During one of his unofficial visits, Wegher watched some Iowa video with assistant coach Lester Erb, who coaches running backs and is co-special teams coach. It was video of Iowa’s kick return team.
“He said they’ve got a spot for me on kick return next year,” said Wegher, who finished with 3,238 yards and 54 touchdowns while leading Sioux City Heelan to the Class 3A title this season. “I think if I can get to the field next season, it’ll probably be returning kicks. It was pretty cool to hear that from a coach.”
The experience on Iowa’s wide receiver corps this out after Derrell Johnson-Koulianos and Trey Stross, who suffered a broken collarbone in the Outback Bowl. The door is wide open for Davis, who participated in the Under Armour all-star game last month, and Cotton, whose dad, Marshall, lettered at running back for Iowa from 1985-87.
“Coaches have told me there’s a spot there,” said Davis, who caught 117 passes for 1,745 yards and 20 TD receptions in a three-year varsity career at Washington. “It’s not going to be given to me, but I can take it. They told me they want me to play and be that guy, but I’ve got to go out and compete for it. It’s all up to me.”
Today, 11 preps from the state of Iowa will sign letters of intent, including three at Iowa State and offensive tackle David Barrent who’ll sign with Michigan State. Including ISU wide receiver Josh Lenz, four skill players will have FBS scholarships.
This output rivals the 2004 signing season when six skill position players from Iowa (Adrian Arrington, Greg Coleman, Jason Scales, Andy Brodell, Brandon Myers and Michael Sabers) signed with FBS schools.
“In terms of skill players, Iowa is obviously more known for producing linemen, like the Robert Gallerys and some of the big kids in this class,” said Luke Feddersen, editor of IowaPreps.com. “But I think this is a great deal for Iowa kids, especially with this many skill players ending up on a major level.”
Heelan coach Roger Jansen believes it’s a cycle, pointing to the 1997 class that produced record-setting Hawkeyes Tim Dwight and Tavian Banks. But he also knows, first hand, that visibility for preps in the state is difficult.
He had a front-row seat for Wegher’s recruitment.
“So much of it turns into marketing,” said Jansen, who’s coached football in Iowa for 27 seasons. “Recruiting is really no different from the Heisman Trophy. The kids in that are marketed. I think recruiting is turning into that too.”
Rick Wegher, Brandon’s dad, created a website (http://www.wegherfootball.com/) that contains stats and videos, including an impressive strength-and-conditioning clip. Also, you can find at least seven Brandon Wegher videos on YouTube.com.
“One, we’re on an island in Iowa and two, we’re from Iowa,” said Rick Wegher, who was a Division II All-American at South Dakota State in 1984. “On a national level, athletes from Iowa don’t get a lot of respect. That’s just the way it is.”
That respect seems to be building.
Dawson and Iowa City High quarterback A.J. Derby will headline a 2010 Iowa prep recruiting class. Derby holds offers from Cincinnati, Iowa, Wisconsin and Stanford. Carroll quarterback Blake Haluska will also earn his share of offers. Denison’s Brandon Scherff (6-5, 275) and Harlan’s Matt Hoch (6-5, 230) will lead another strong class of linemen.
Iowa already has a commitment from Solon linebacker James Morris, who’s picked up an offer from Stanford since committing to Iowa last winter. Cedar Falls’ Jake Farley, son of UNI coach Mark Farley, will also get attention as a linebacker.
Lombardi has a theory about volume. A college coach, with tightening recruiting budgets, might not find enough bang for the buck to justify a trip to Iowa, which includes flying into Des Moines or Cedar Rapids and then a couple hours in a car to see maybe three recruits. Compare that to the Chicago area, where a coach can easily fly in and drive to see a dozen recruits in one day.
Texas Tech’s recruitment of Davis never really got off the ground because of problems with flights out of Lubbock and into Cedar Rapids.
“The beneficiary of that, in my opinion, is Kirk Ferentz,” Lombardi said. “This year, from a skill standpoint, to get Keenan, the kid from Mount Pleasant and Wegher in one year from out of the state of Iowa, that’s a good haul. That’s a good haul from any state.”