Iowa among best at producing NFL talent

When Riley Reiff hears his named called in the first round of Thursday’s NFL Draft, he will become the 43rd player from Iowa to be drafted since 2002.

Need help quantifying that number?

It’s more than Michigan, Notre Dame, Penn State has had over the same period. In fact, outside of Ohio State, it’s more than any other Midwest program.

Maybe even more surprising, Reiff will be the Hawkeyes’ 23rd draft pick since 2007, which is more than Miami, arguably the No. 1 “football factory” in the country.

And the Hawkeyes have done that with just one top 25 recruiting class since 2006. A top 25 class alone instead of a top 10 or 15 class at those traditional powers is often even considered a disappointment.

Don’t think for a second the Iowa coaching staff is not using those numbers to its advantage either. The recruiting process is just as much about helping a high school prospect get to the NFL as it is about anything else.

“When you look at our process, we’re not getting the four- and five-star guys, but we’re developing our two- and three-star guys better than the program getting the four- and five-star guys,” Iowa recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson said. “They’re getting the guys that are highly recruited, but we’re getting more guys to the next level. You can go to a place that allows you to coast or go to a program that’s going to develop you, push you and get you to the next level. A two and three-star guy might say Iowa is the program to help me mature, to get me to the level where I want to be.

“That’s a dream that most have is playing football. That is a big part of recruiting.”

Johnson said every year the Iowa staff convenes and goes over the best ways to recruit the next year’s class. So the staff hands out surveys to the incoming freshman and to the Hawkeyes already on the roster about the recruiting process. The chance to get to the NFL is always among the highest.

“When they talk about it anonymously, and the order might change from year to year, but it’s the opportunity to play early, the stability of the staff and NFL opportunities,” Johnson said. “Those are the three most important components [recruits] feel in their mind.”

Johnson could not put a percentage on how much the staff sells the NFL success as opposed to academics, facilities and the rest of the Iowa program, but he said the key is to be balanced.

When a recruit makes a visit to Iowa, the staff is sure to show him two walls. One wall consists of Iowa’s consensus All-Americans, and Johnson estimates one-third have come since he and Kirk Ferentz arrived at Iowa before the 1999 season.

The second wall is the academic All-Americans, and Johnson guesses 95 percent have come since 1999.

“Over the last 14 years and you can name the year, it’s Northwestern, Iowa and Penn State at the top in graduation rates. We show both sides,” Johnson said. “Coach Ferentz understands how hard it is to get to the NFL and stay in the NFL. We push our guys to be the best on the field and the best off the field. You’re going to offend some recruits if you just sell the NFL all the way, and you’re not going to get some guys if all you talk about is academics.”

At Iowa, Johnson knows the Hawkeyes are going to not always win the battles against the likes of Michigan, Notre Dame and Penn State, so he said the staff looks for three things.

“We try to identify guys that we feel have good character, are tough and like football,” he said. “A lot of times that may not be the four- or five-star guy, but we think in our minds that’s what has made us a good program.”

And more importantly for recruits, it’s made Iowa a stepping stone to the NFL.