AMES — West Des Moines Valley Coach Gary Swenson’s phone beeped almost immediately when top football recruit Jake Campos committed to Missouri.
The text was from Swenson’s son, but it wasn’t about family business. It was about football.
“My youngest son lives in Minneapolis, and he graduated from Iowa and he’s a huge Iowa fan,” Swenson said. “When the thing came out about Campos, I had a text from him within five minutes going ‘What the heck?’ He wanted to see him go to Iowa or even Iowa State.”
Campos’s mid-May commitment outside of state borders created real angst for Iowa and Iowa State fans. Campos, a 6-foot-7, 250-pound Rivals’ four-star tackle prospect, is one of six Des Moines-area senior football players already committed to Division I schools. Three players — Campos, his Valley teammate Sam Raridon and Dowling kicker Matt Haack — picked schools outside the state.
It’s not rare for football players in a three-county region (Polk, Dallas, Warren) around Des Moines to look beyond the state borders. Over the last six years, three of Swenson’s players have selected out-of-state schools. According to Rivals’ recruiting database, since 2008 15 players from those three counties and six more in the 2013 class have either signed or are committed to Division I football programs. One-third of those players have left the state.
It’s a trend that the Iowa coaching staff has noticed and discussed, recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson said.
“We just keep trying to build a good program that people in the state feel proud about that they’ll feel strongly enough that they want to send their kids here,” Johnson said. “That’s all we can really do as a program.
“In other states they kind of lock things down a little bit, coaches point their kids toward those programs and stuff like that. Obviously that’s our goal as a staff to get to that point, and we’re striving to get there.”
There’s no rhythm as to why the players left the state. For Campos, it was about fit. His parents went to Drake, and he has little attachment to either Iowa or Iowa State. He visited both in-state schools four or five times but felt most comfortable at Missouri.
Campos carries a 3.98 grade-point-average and is excited about joining Missouri’s engineering program.
“The main thing was it felt right to me,” Campos said. “One night I just kept asking, ‘Why am I still doing this?’ I kept comparing everything to Missouri. Everything was coming back to Missouri.”
Campos said he visited Iowa and Iowa State again, even after committing to Missouri. Iowa since has backed off, but Iowa State has not. Campos said he still hears from ISU coaches.
“We’re still talking,” Campos said, but added that he’s “close to 100 percent” committed to Missouri.
Rhoads can’t talk about specific recruits, but he’s committed to making an effort on all in-state players.
“We don’t take a back seat to anything when it comes recruiting,” he said. “We’re hard charging. Some we’ll get, some we don’t, that’s recruiting. You don’t get stuck on it.”
Iowa lists only four players on its roster from the three-county area and just one — former Valley lineman Conor Boffeli — is on scholarship. Losing in-state recruits — in particular the Des Moines market — strains on Johnson and the Iowa coaching staff.
“We’re trying to figure that out,” Johnson said. “Those are people that we felt very strongly about, and it’s disappointing to us. Maybe I’m saying too much, but it’s disappointing to us when we don’t get those kids because our program is always built on in-state kids. We’re built from the inside out. When we don’t get the heart of our state, that’s disappointing to us as a team.”
Swenson has another player leaving the state after this season. Defensive tackle Sam Raridon chose Wisconsin over Iowa.
Since 2008 Swenson has helped seven players earn scholarship offers, and four have stayed in-state.
“Without question we would prefer to see all of our players stay in the state of Iowa and either go to Iowa or Iowa State if they get offered,” Swenson said. “But we don’t go to the player and try to convince them of anything. We feel like they’re going to know what they want. When they get on campus and look at the program and look at the academic side of it, they’re going to make a decision that’s right for them.”
WHAT MORE CAN THEY DO?
With the second-smallest population among the Big Ten’s nine states, Iowa generates a limited amount of in-state prospects. Most players stay within the state either as recruits or walk-ons at Iowa or Iowa State. Iowa State lists 53 in-state players on its roster, while Iowa has 45.
For every Rivals four-star player like Campos or former West Des Moines Dowling and current Michigan wide receiver Amara Darboh, there are plenty more athletes who stay in state. In next year’s class, Dowling tight end Jon Wisnieski selected Iowa and Ankeny athlete Joel Lanning chose Iowa State.
Swenson’s other recent recruit that left the state, offensive lineman David Barrent in 2009, initially committed to Iowa but later flipped to Michigan State in part because of his father’s relationship with an assistant coach.
Swenson said the in-state programs’ recruiting methods are top-notch and don’t need to change their methods in the Des Moines market.
“I don’t think there’s a single thing as a high school coach that I’d say, ‘Oh yeah, if they did this,’” Swenson said. “Let’s face it: we don’t have that many recruits in the whole state in a given year. Every once in a while you get a kid like the Darboh kid out of Dowling a year ago or even the Campos kid this year where out of state programs come in. That’s really the exception, not the rule.”
Iowa has produced nine Rivals’ four-star recruits since 2008 but only four initially elected to stay in-state. All four picked Iowa. The three Des Moines-area four-star athletes — Campos, Barrent and Darboh (who was born in Sierra Leone) — all chose to leave the state.
“When you’re in a more populous area, those kids tend to look a little bit more nationally than guys from less populous areas,” said Josh Helmholdt, Rivals’ midwest recruiting analyst. “In Des Moines you have a more diverse group of guys than you would other more rural parts of the state. You’ll have guys maybe who aren’t native Iowans. That will play a part of where a kid goes to schools.”
Both Rhoads and Johnson find the Des Moines is similar to other metro areas around the country. With a dense collection of schools, players get noticed much more quickly than in rural Iowa.
“The state of Iowa is a priority for us,” Rhoads said. “I think what you find in Iowa’s largest city is no different than what you find in a lot of metropolitan areas throughout the United States is those guys have a little bit broader picture and look at some things that maybe a young man from Cherokee doesn’t necessarily. We make the same commitment to the Des Moines schools, the metro schools, as we do to the rural schools in this state and won’t ever change that philosophy.
“If we’re comparing two players that are relatively similar and one’s 1,000 miles away and one’s 10 miles away, I promise you we’re going with the one 10 miles away right here in the state of Iowa.”
While more than half of Rivals’ four-star players leave Iowa, most of the website’s three-star athletes stay in-state. Of the 25 three-star players over the last six years, only three left for out-of-state football programs. Ames tight end Ben Cotton joined his father, Barney, at Nebraska. Matt Hoch joined his older brother, Dan, at Missouri. Raridon, who’s father played high school football for current Wisconsin Athletics Director Barry Alvarez, is the other.
While Iowa doesn’t boast major numbers from Des Moines, it rakes in the state’s “mid-range” talent. Seven offensive and two defensive starters hail from Iowa and only two — wide receiver Keenan Davis and guard Austin Blythe — were four-star recruits. Neither are from the Des Moines market.
Johnson said he and the staff often compare in-state players to their out-of-state counterparts. One that stands out is starting middle linebacker James Morris, who played at Solon, located just 12 miles north of Iowa City. Morris was a three-star player and committed early, in part because his father, Greg, is Iowa’s football equipment manager.
“Everybody recruits Chicago just like everybody recruits Florida, Dallas or whatever,” Johnson said. “That’s the thing we always talk about. ‘Hey if this kid was in this area he’d have 100 offers right now.’ That is totally true.
“You look at James Morris, who was as highly recruited a guy as we’ve had in this state. In all honesty if you put him in Chicago, he probably would have had a ton more offers, and I know he was happy with the offers he had. He’s been an outstanding player for us, he was an outstanding player in high school and throughout his career. If you put him in an area where somebody could fly in and out of very easily, that makes a big difference.”
HITS AND MISSES
Swenson, who’s six wins shy of 300, said he still meets with his players and their parents before starting the recruiting process. He strives for accuracy with college coaches so he has credibility. But his primary goal is to help each player.
“If we err, we err on the positive side,” Swenson said. “Colleges aren’t afraid to eliminate a player.”
Boffeli credits Swenson for boosting his profile among college coaches.
“After my sophomore year he sat me down and asked me if I had any interest in playing college football,” said Boffeli, a junior. “Of course I told him yes. From there on, he’s sending out highlight tapes and talking to coaches and stuff like that.”
Among the recruiting changes for Swenson is the highlight transmission. He formerly mixed plays together on a VHS tape and mailed them to colleges. Now, it’s as simple as sending video clips online. That enables out-of-state programs to gain more access to Iowa athletes.
Players also head to more camps as sophomores and juniors than ever before, which leads to earlier scholarship offers.
The growth in plyometrics and other improvements in strength and conditioning also has enhanced the players’ ability to play right away, Rhoads said. That has elevated the prospect pool in Des Moines and other markets.
“I think the metro has probably increased its level of talent and level of players capable of competing at the Division I level,” Rhoads said. “I think that comes with the advance in training methods. There’s so many kids that do this speed training and are getting more sport-specific as they got through that. With that, you maybe don’t have to project as much. You’ve got a little bit more ready-made product as a 17-18 year old young man.”
Even with the improvements in training methods and digital technology, mistakes still can happen in recruiting — even in the Des Moines market. Iowa State linebacker Jake Knott, a Rivals’ two-star recruit at Waukee, initially committed to Iowa on a partial baseball scholarship but changed his mind as a high school senior and wanted to play college football.
Both Iowa and Iowa State, which then was under Gene Chizik, offered Knott a chance to walk on. It wasn’t until Rhoads took over in December that Knott, a first-team all-Big 12 linebacker last year, earned a football scholarship offer. That came in mid-January.
“I don’t even think Coach Rhoads got done with his sentence,” Knott said. “Right when he said, ‘We’re offering you a scholarship,’ I said, ‘I’m committed.’ I wanted to be at Iowa State, but the previous coaching staff didn’t think I … they gave me a walk on.
“I was waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting. It was the most agonizing thing I’ve ever done. I was really, really blessed, and it was emotional to have that kind of relief and be happy with the place you’re going.”
Knott, now a senior, played right away on special teams. He’s a three-year starter and will rank among Iowa State’s most celebrated players. Yet, he almost left Iowa’s largest market without a football scholarship.
“I know a lot of schools may have missed on a lot of people, and I might have been one of them,” Knott said. “It all ended up, by far, the perfect thing. Coach Rhoads saw the potential in me and gave me that scholarship, and I was lucky enough to get it at the end of that recruiting cycle.”
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