How Iowa football made Chicagoland a ‘home-state area’ in recruiting

IOWA CITY, Iowa — The mighty Mississippi River forms a natural boundary separating Iowa from Illinois, but when it comes to football recruiting, Iowa’s talent acquisition sprawl knows no eastern border. That’s especially true when it comes to Chicagoland.

The Hawkeyes’ roster is chock full of talent from the nation’s third-largest metro area. In Iowa’s last five recruiting classes, the Hawkeyes signed 14 Chicagoland prospects. Only three are no longer on the team. Counting transfer receiver Kaleb Brown and four walk-ons, Iowa currently rosters 16 Chicagoland players with additional walk-ons possible for this fall.

“We treat Illinois like a home state,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “You can drive up to Chicago and back by the time it takes you to get to Sioux City or some of the towns in northwest Iowa.”

To reach West Des Moines from Kinnick Stadium by vehicle, it takes a typical driver two hours. To drive in the opposite direction and enter Chicago’s western suburb of Aurora takes less than three hours. The rest of the Chicagoland journey, well, that depends on traffic.

“I could be in a weight room in the western suburbs by 7:30 — that’s leaving before 5 — but it’s manageable,” said assistant head coach Seth Wallace, Iowa’s Chicagoland recruiter. “The next thing you know, you’re sitting in a weight room. You’ve got a full day in Chicago, and then in return, you can get out of there at 2:30, 3 o’clock in the afternoon and be home by dinnertime.”



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Every football program in the Big Ten’s traditional footprint plus Notre Dame recruits Chicagoland. With more than 9.6 million people in the metro area, according to the 2020 U.S. Census, there are fans, alums and athletes everywhere. But it takes work, investment, experience and time to make inroads with Chicagoland coaches, who are more impressed with effort than reputations or logos.

Notre Dame, Michigan and Ohio State often mine Chicagoland for national prospects and leave the developmental candidates for their nearby brethren. For generations, Illinois, Northwestern, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Iowa, Purdue and Indiana have battled for those three-star candidates who need a few years of fundamental work coupled with a training table and ambitious weight room regimen. All of the programs have enjoyed varying levels of recruiting success.

As part of its Chicagoland Confidential story, The Athletic interviewed eight high school coaches anonymously on several recruiting topics, the in-state and out-of-state programs, and coaches with whom they deal. Iowa received the most universal praise for how it handles the region.

“If you asked me who’s one of my favorite coaches that comes into our building, year in and year out, it would be Seth Wallace,” one Chicagoland high school coach said. “I think he’s a tremendous recruiter. He’s very straightforward. I think he does an amazing job in working with kids and finding out who they are and making sure that Iowa is the right fit for them.”



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Many Big Ten schools assign multiple assistants to recruit Chicago. Iowa previously did the same. However, after shifting around responsibilities in 2018, the staff opted to send only Wallace to Chicago to streamline its operation.

“You start talking to other colleagues and coaches, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, you have all of Chicago by yourself?’” Wallace said. “Well, the unique part of that is if I’m at Barrington High School and I’m talking to Joe Sanchez, and they played so-and-so in the state semis, and he said, ‘There’s this defensive end that’s at Lincoln-Way East or St. Rita,’ I don’t have to worry about stepping on anybody’s toes.

“Even though it is consuming and it is overwhelming at times that you have all Chicago, we are pretty specific on what we’re looking for.”

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Iowa DB Jermari Harris earned second-team all-state honors as a senior at Montini Catholic in Lombard, Illinois. (Reese Strickland / USA Today)

For Iowa, Wallace makes the first contacts with recruits and Chicagoland coaches, but it becomes an all-hands effort if there’s shared interest. Wallace stays involved while the position coach, coordinator, recruiting staff and Ferentz join the effort before a scholarship offer. Outside of a few preconditions, such as an on-site visit, the Hawkeyes rarely extend an offer if they’re not prepared to receive a commitment.

When communicating with high school coaches, Wallace and Iowa’s other staffers are upfront about every aspect of the program, from the developmental grind to the non-negotiable 6 a.m. summer workouts. But they’re also equally upbeat about the benefits.

“You don’t have to get on a plane,” Wallace said. “They’re going to play seven games in Iowa City, so you’re going to be here in three hours. Then you’re going to play another six, and in that Big Ten footprint, you might go to Ann Arbor, you might have to go to Columbus, you might have to go to West Lafayette, you’re going to go to Madison.

“Outside of the ones that we’ve added here recently on the East Coast and the West Coast, there’s still a good chance that your family is going to be able to see you play nine games a year, and nine out of 13 games guaranteed is pretty good.”

The Chicagoland is pivotal for the University of Iowa as a whole. Of its 30,042 students enrolled last year, 6,087 came from Illinois, according to a university report.

“A huge part of our student body comes from Illinois, especially the Chicagoland area,” Ferentz said. “So we try to get in there and treat it like a home-state area. For us, that’s important.”

“There’s a lot of people waving the flag for the University of Iowa in those schools,” Wallace said. “(The players) don’t necessarily have a connection with the 15 other kids from Barrington High School and Lincoln-Way East High School that are here on campus. I think it’s they are so familiar with an aunt, an uncle, a cousin … somebody that has had a great experience here in Iowa.”



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Wallace’s first impression, the staff’s holistic approach, the easy commute for games and the opportunity for players to return home for long weekends all aid Iowa in landing prospects. But how the Hawkeyes develop Chicagoland players is what has made this process mutually beneficial.

Of Iowa’s 14 Chicagoland signees from 2019 to 2023, the program lost only one to transfer (receiver Jacob Bostick) and one to medical retirement (offensive tackle David Davidkov). Three of the four 2019-2020 recruits are current starters (cornerback Jermari Harris, defensive back Sebastian Castro and running back Leshon Williams), with the other — defensive end Lukas Van Ness — becoming a first-round NFL Draft pick in 2023. The remaining 2021 and 2022 signees (defensive linemen Jeremiah Pittman and Brian Allen Jr., respectively) are slated to become key rotational performers. Among the 2023 recruits, true sophomore John Nestor is challenging for a starting cornerback role.

“We’re recruiting developmental kids,” Wallace said. “When you get a developmental kid and he knows he’s developmental, he can see the big picture, and in return, that’s what keeps them here. Quite frankly, that’s probably why some of them aren’t being poached.”

Iowa’s recruiting relationships continue to blossom. This year, the Hawkeyes signed four Chicagoland recruits. In their 2025 recruiting class, there are three Chicagoland commits and three others slated to make official visits in June. Chicagoland coaches reach out to Wallace daily about their own players and those from their competitors — even during a three-hour conversation with a reporter. The staff’s honesty and straightforward style coupled with the individual success stories and team results have earned trust from Chicago’s coaches. That filters down to the recruits.

“It’s always been kind of Iowa’s M.O., but they just do a really good job evaluating, like the (Drew) MacPherson kid they got out of Loyola,” said a second Chicagoland high school coach referencing a 2025 commit. “He’s just a really, really good football player.

“Of course, Iowa comes in, and he doesn’t even play safety, and they go, ‘We’ll make you a safety.’ They just do a really good job of identifying kids like that.”

(Top photo of Seth Wallace: Scott Dochterman / The Athletic)

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