Iowa's NFL pipeline under Kirk Ferentz ready to flow again

Kirk Ferentz and former Iowa and NFL tight end Dallas Clark share a laugh in practice.

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Kirk Ferentz has two primary objectives or goals as the Iowa football coach.

One is to win as many games as possible and the other is to graduate as many of his players as possible.

Everything else, including developing players for the NFL Draft, is secondary, although, you could make a strong case for the draft being third on the list of importance because of how it changes so many lives and because of Ferentz's success in building an NFL pipeline.

From Dallas Clark to Bob Sanders to Marshal Yanda to Micah Hyde, the list of former Iowa players who either became stars in the NFL or lasted in the league for years is long and distinguished and shows no signs of slowing down heading into the 2018 NFL Draft where at least three or four former Hawkeyes are expected to be selected.

The question with regard to defensive back Josh Jackson and center James Daniels isn’t whether they’ll be drafted as early-entry juniors, but rather will they last past the first round on Thursday?

Or will it mark the first time since 1997 that two Iowa players were selected in the first round with cornerback Tom Knight and offensive lineman Ross Verba having earned that distinction?

Much of the speculation, mock drafts and feedback from people who believe they know a lot more about the inner workings of the draft than they probably do says there is a chance Jackson and Daniels both could be selected in the first round.

It would be a surprise if either one lasted past the second round, which says a lot about them as players and a lot about Iowa’s NFL pipeline under Ferentz, which has produced 63 players since the 2000 NFL Draft.

The pipeline under Ferentz started flowing with tight end Austin Wheatley being selected in the fifth round by the New Orleans Saints in 2000 and left off with defensive back Desmond King being picked by the Los Angeles Chargers in the fifth round last April.

Iowa probably has about seven or eight players from the 2017 team that will almost certainly be with NFL teams this spring and summer, either as draft picks or as free agents.

In addition to Jackson and Daniels, linebacker Josey Jewell also appears as a lock to be drafted with some saying as high as the third round.

Other legitimate possibilities are running back Akrum Wadley, offensive lineman Sean Welsh and linebacker Ben Niemann.

And don’t forgot about offensive linemen Ike Boettger and Boone Myers because they both were on course for at least consideration to be drafted until injuries derailed their senior season.

It wouldn’t surprise me if both of them made an NFL roster as free agents, or at least an NFL practice squad.

Linebackers Bo Bower and Kevin Ward, fullback Drake Kulick and long snapper Tyler Kluver also could go the free-agent route.

Kirk Ferentz has a knack for developing NFL players, but he hardly does it alone. It’s a group effort from the moment a player steps foot on campus.

Iowa strength coach Chris Doyle shapes their bodies and their minds, while the assistant coaches mold them into football players as Ferentz overlooks the entire process.

One of the many interesting things about Jackson and Daniels is that Jackson was a two-star recruit from Texas with hardly any scholarships offers, while Daniels was a four-star recruit from Ohio who turned down Ohio State and Alabama in order to be a Hawkeye.

Jackson and Daniels came to college under different circumstances and then took different paths to reach stardom.

Jackson was redshirted as a true freshman in 2014 and then played as a reserve in 2015 and 2016 before bursting to stardom last fall in stunning fashion.

Daniels, on the other hand, hit the ground running, or hit the ground blocking, might be a better way to put it in his case. Daniels was ready to contribute from the moment he arrived on campus and he started as a true freshman in the 2016 Rose Bowl.

NFL teams reportedly like Daniels as both a center and guard, which should only help his cause. 

It is easy to assume that Daniels picked Iowa because he wanted to play with his older brother in college. LeShun Daniels played running back for the Hawkeyes from 2013 to 2016 and was entering his junior season when James joined the program.

But brotherly love was just a small factor in the decision, according to James. It obviously helped that LeShun was on the team, but Iowa helped itself more by how it conducts business under Ferentz.

James Daniels picked Iowa mostly because he felt it was the best place for him to reach his potential and to develop into an NFL prospect. 

And it's hard to argue with the results.

"I really wish recruits would realize that if you come to Iowa and go through the program and realize how structured it is, you'll be at a huge advantage when comes to coming into the NFL," James Daniels said in late March.

That was quite an endorsement, but it's true.

Iowa has a knack for developing NFL players, enough to where it's sometimes used against Ferentz. The critics could resurface on Thursday if Jackson and Daniels both are selected in the first round, wondering why a team with two first-round NFL picks only finished 8-5 overall and just 4-5 in confernece play.

The fact that James Daniels and Josh Jackson are both poised to make the NFL speaks volumes about Iowa's ability to develop players from all different kinds of football backgrounds. Iowa is known mostly for turning unheralded and overlooked recruits like Jackson into NFL players, but the pipeline goes beyond that with James Daniels a shining example.

Star recruits also can flourish at Iowa because the same structure and discipline that works for the unheralded recruits works for them, too.

It comes down to trusting the process and trusting that your coaches will lead you to the promised land, which in somes cases, is the NFL.

Jackson could've bolted from Iowa after not playing right away, but he stayed the course, stayed committed and kept working hard, and now look at him.

Jackson is on the verge of seeing his life change dramatically and will get to experience the moment with his family nearby as the 2018 NFL Draft will be held at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, which isn't far from Jackson's home in Corinth, Tex.

Kirk Ferentz also will attend the draft, so he can share the special moment with his two former players.

They all did this together, and with help from many others who mostly work behind the scenes for the Iowa football program.

James Daniels and Josh Jackson both trusted the people and the environment at Iowa and will soon benefit from that trust and guidance in a big way.