Now that national signing day is over, I wanted to examine in more detail the recent hiring of new running backs coach Lester Erb and the impact he could have with Rutgers football. He has a reputation as a strong recruiter and a good developer of talent, with his longest body of work coming in 13 years at Iowa. Erb brings a lot of experience with him and was even associate head coach at his last stop for Nevada. His resume is far more extensive than previous running backs coach Zak Kuhr and I think his hiring was another upgrade for head coach Chris Ash’s staff this offseason.
Of course, I wanted to find out from fans that knew of Erb more closely to find out more. I was fortunate to speak with co-managing editor Max Brekke of SB Nation’s Iowa blog, Black Heart Gold Pants. I asked Max about Erb’s recruiting pedigree, his work in developing players at Iowa, his work on special teams, as well as his opinion on Rutgers hiring Erb. Let’s jump in.
AB: Erb joined Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz's staff early on his tenure and stayed for 12 seasons. What is Erb's reputation among Iowa fans and what were the circumstances in his departure?
Max: Erb has a pretty mixed reputation amongst Iowa fans. He was ESSENTIAL to recruiting and helped Iowa snag a bunch of guys who ended up being really good Iowa players, and he also coached a bunch of unheralded Iowa players in his time in Iowa City (more on that in a bit), but a lot were happy to see him go. He was let go after the 2012 season, where Iowa finished 4-8, and just about nothing seemed to be going right. Special teams weren't great, and the running back situation was an absolute mess, which people mostly (and unfairly) blamed on him. But a dumbfounding fact about his time as running backs coach is this: not a single Hawkeye scholarship running back graduated over a course of five years. Holy wow. This isn't entirely his fault, of course, but it's still stupefying.
The circumstances surrounding his departure are mostly assumed to involve Iowa hiring Greg Davis as offensive coordinator. It was a bit odd, since the school announced that he was "leaving to pursue other options," but it was pretty obvious that he was asked to leave and decided to oblige the higher ups. It's probably about as simple as that.
AB: Erb has been named a top 25 recruiter by Rivals twice during his time at Iowa. Who were some of the biggest name players he brought him and how successful did they become in their Hawkeye careers?
Max: This is really where he made his money. He was mostly in charge of recruiting Illinois, and as you mentioned, was named a Top 25 recruiter in 2005 and 2012. In 2012, he was praised for bringing in Maurice Fleming (a 3* out of Chicago who ended up transferring), Faith Ekakitie (a 4* defensive lineman from Chicago who made a huge impact, particularly in 2016), and Jaleel Johnson (a 4* defensive lineman from Chicago who is playing in the Senior Bowl this week). The obvious big name here is Johnson, who terrorized quarterbacks for the majority of his career and will likely be drafted this summer by an NFL team.
Some other names of players that Erb brought to Iowa include Tony Moeaki, a former 5-star prospect and current NFL tight end; 5-star offensive linemen Dace Richardson and Dan Doering, the former having earned some serious playing time and the latter not making much of an impact on the team.
All-in-all, the guy can recruit pretty well, and while not all of his recruits have panned out, he'll at least get some guys to lean towards Rutgers at some point or another.
AB: He coached wide receivers for 8 seasons and running backs for 5 seasons at Iowa. Who were some of the standout players that played under Erb and what was his reputation as a talent developer?
Max: His most noticeable impact was at running backs coach, which is good for Rutgers fans to hear, I'm sure! In his first season as a running backs coach at Iowa, he helped to develop a decent running back prospect named Shonn Greene into a Doak Walker award-winner and NFL running back in one season. He also helped develop Adam Robinson and Marcus Coker into pretty good running backs. His biggest accomplishment, though, might be his development of former walk-on fullback Mark Weisman into the team's first-string halfback in 2012 when the team was out of options.
Iowa hasn't generally been known for their great (or even good) receivers, but Erb did coach some of Iowa's most prolific receivers. Clinton Solomon, Ed Hinkel, and Maurice Brown are all ranked in the Top 20 all-time receiving yards at Iowa, and they all played their whole careers under Erb. He also coached Derrell Johnson-Koulianos during his freshman season, who ended his career with the most receptions and receiving yards in school history (but has since been surpassed in both categories), as well as Top 20 receivers Kevin Kasper and Kahlil Hill at the end of their careers. While none of these players have gone on to have success at the highest level, he still has coached 30% of the Top 20 receivers in school history. That's not too bad.
AB: Erb also coached special teams at Iowa his entire 13 seasons there. Was he the coordinator or did he just work with the kickers & punters specifically? What was his reputation in this area?
Max: He was in fact the special teams coordinator at Iowa during his time in the midwest, and man, special teams weren't always great while he was here. Iowa's always had some really good punters (#PUNTINGISWINNING) and Nate Kaeding might be the greatest kicker of all-time, but the Hawkeyes had a penchant for not being able to stop teams from taking advantage of them on special teams. How, you ask? Well, I'm pretty sure that Iowa was never able to actually stop a fake punt in his 13 years here (don't look this up, just assume it is fact), and when teams found this out, they did it pretty often. I was in the student section for every home game during his last two seasons in Iowa City, and I think that teams converted on about five or thirty fake punts against the Hawkeyes in those two years. It wasn't fun to watch.
Something else that was weird was that it felt like Iowa couldn't stop their opponents from recovering onside kicks. Iowa lost to Minnesota in 2011 after letting the Gophers recover an onside kick and subsequently score a touchdown, and then in 2012, the Hawks let Central Michigan walk out of Kinnick Stadium with a win after recovering an onside kick. CENTRAL MICHIGAN! That's just not right, man.
Honestly, this doesn't give him enough credit. Iowa special teams were perfectly fine for the most part, but it's always easy to pick out the bad things. Teams converting fake punts and recovering onside kicks is just a really easy thing to remember. He was mostly fine, and he's not coaching special teams at Rutgers, so it shouldn't be anything y'all need to think about at this juncture.
AB: Overall, how do you rate the hire of Erb as running backs coach at Rutgers?
Max: I'd say it's pretty good! The dude was a rockstar of a recruiter for the Hawkeyes in his 13 seasons and he developed some of the best running backs Iowa has had in a long time. Of course, there's the weird thing where none of Iowa's scholarship halfbacks graduated while he coached that position, but let's be honest, it's not Erb's job to babysit them so it's not entirely his fault. Plus there was the deity known as the AIRBHG (Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God no seriously look it up) which surely must have hindered his ability to keep a big stable of runners. Hopefully Erb didn't bring the AIRBHG with him to New Jersey, or else you'll have to convert a kicker to halfback by the midpoint of next season.
Overall, I like the hire for Rutgers. Y'all already have a handful of good backs, so he should develop them just fine! Good luck with your new running backs guy and don't let him strategize against fake punts.
While the hiring of Jerry Kill as offensive coordinator was the bigger story, and rightfully so, the addition of Erb is very important as well. His reputation as a strong recruiter, his credibility in developing successful players at Iowa, including some who made the NFL, as well as his overall experience, seem like big pluses in having Erb on staff. While Ash has Kill to really lean on for sound advice in rebuilding the program, Erb is another veteran presence that should mesh well with both of his bosses. In addition, the running game is so vital to the success of the spread offense Rutgers wants to run. With Erb in charge of the running backs, he should align well in working with former Hawkeye standout player A.J. Blazek, now the offensive line coach. Ash’s moves with the offensive staff give hope that symmetry on that side of the ball will now exist, coupled with the additions of playmakers to the roster. Rutgers has nowhere to go but up on offense and they seem well positioned to do just that next season.
Thanks to Max for taking the time to give us great insight on new Rutgers running backs coach Lester Erb. You can follow him on twitter here.