By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - Recruiting always has been and always will be the mother’s milk of big-time college football, but how it’s handled has changed dramatically over the past few years.
The first Wednesday in February used to be treated almost like a holiday with recruiting fanatics because that is the national signing day for football.
But now it's sort of an afterthought due to having an early signing day in December.
The Iowa football team, for example, has 22 players in its 2020 recruiting class, and all but two of them signed their national letter of intent in December.
The two exceptions are Wisconsin defensive lineman Michael Lois and Australian punter Tory Taylor, both of whom signed with Iowa on Wednesday.
Lois is unlikely to play for Iowa due to health reasons stemming from a back injury that he suffered last summer while diving from a trampoline into a pool, and after having made a verbal commitment to Iowa.
But Lois will be kept on scholarship and given every opportunity to graduate from Iowa. He might even help the football team in some other capacity that has yet to be determined.
“One thing we always tell players is we don’t want them to commit unless they’ve very serious about the commitment, but that commitment is a two-way street,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said at a Wednesday press conference. “Michael and his parents came down on multiple visits and they were enthused about the program.
“They made the commitment and we accepted it, and from that time on, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re committed to a player graduating. That’s the first and foremost goal we have. Obviously, we want to try and provide a good experience for them athletically. But to me, ultimately, it’s about commitment to graduation.”
As for the punter from down under, Taylor is part of a trend that is sweeping through college football.
Taylor has a chance to pick up where fellow Australia native Michael Sleep-Dalton left off this past season as Iowa’s starting punter.
Taylor is from Melbourne, Australia and is listed at 6-foot-4 and 225 pounds. He will have four seasons of eligibility at Iowa.
Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods was mostly in charge of Taylor’s recruitment.
Ferentz even joked on Wednesday about the time and effort that Woods invested in landing Taylor.
“There’s a lot of Australians coming here now,” Ferentz said. “LeVar left about eight weeks ago and went down there and got back I think two days ago.
“I’m joking about it. But man, that was a long trip for him. But it was fascinating for him, and to get him to tell the story. It’s just amazing what’s going on there right now.”
Sleep-Dalton came to Iowa as a 25-year old graduate transfer from Arizona State and had just one season of eligibility, while Taylor is about 19 or 20 years old according to Ferentz.
It appears Sleep-Dalton has helped to start a recruiting pipeline to the land down under.
“If you think about it, if you’re in Canada or Maine, you grow up skating, right,” Ferentz said. “I guess these guys, they play catch with their feet instead of their hands.”
Continuing with the special teams theme, Ferentz confirmed that kicker Caleb Shudak is in the transfer portal, but that he also could stay at Iowa.
The Iowa coaches have made it clear to Shudak that they want him to stay, and Ferentz seemed optimistic that he will stay.
“We’re going to do everything we can to keep Caleb on the roster,” Ferentz said. “We’re going to fight like crazy.”
The fight apparently includes putting Shudak on scholarship, which means Iowa would have two kickers on scholarship next season.
Shudak handled kickoffs this past season, and was the backup kicker behind Keith Duncan, who earned All-America accolades last season and has has since been put on scholarship.
Duncan and Shudak will both be seniors next season.
“Especially here, how often do we have a two-deep where we have two guys that could be starters, not often at any position,” Ferentz said.
New addition on the line: Iowa might have found a replacement for All-America right tackle Tristan Wirfs, and he comes from another Big Ten school, and with 40 starts under his belt.
News broke recently that Coy Cronk had enrolled at Iowa for the spring semester as a graduate transfer from Indiana, where he had started 40 games at left tackle.
Iowa already has senior Alaric Jackson firmly entrenched at left tackle as a three-year starter, but there is a void at right tackle with Wirfs having declared for the 2020 NFL Draft.
“He wanted a change of scenery for whatever reason and I think it’s just a good match,” Ferentz said of Cronk. “And with Tristan leaving, it was really timely. He’s not an incumbent either. Nobody is an incumbent. But he’s going to have every opportunity to earn a job on the line up there.
“Really pleased about getting him. I think that’s a timely addition for us.”
It could be awkward and create some hard feelings when a player transfers from within the same conference.
However, in Cronk's case, it helps that Iowa and Indiana won’t face each other during the 2020 regular season.
It is similar to when former Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock transferred to Michigan as a graduate student in 2015.
Iowa and Michigan didn’t play each other in 2015, so Ferentz had no problem with Rudock’s decision.
“My feeling was I preferred he didn’t go somewhere where we played,” Ferentz said of Rudock. “That would be a little uncomfortable quite frankly.
“But ultimately, we’re supposed to be in this for what’s best for the players. That’s supposedly are motivation as coaches. And I think, ultimately, you want a player to go where he going to be happiest, and you certainly don’t want a guy on your team who’s not happy. That’s not good for anybody.”
New walk-ons: Iowa's 2020 recruiting class also includes 14 players who will join the program as walk-ons.
Ten of the 14 players are from Iowa, including defensive end Zack Lasek, who attends Highland High School in Riverside.
Walk-ons have played a significant role at Iowa dating back to when Hayden Fry took over as head coach in 1979. Ferentz coached the Iowa offensive line for nine seasons under Fry from 1981-89 and saw just how important walk-ons were to the team's success.