Four downs with the special teams
QUICK LOOK BACK: Special teams were shaky last season and it cost Iowa football games. Really simple as that.
Special teams cost Iowa points in a 34-27 loss at Arizona. At the top of the carnage was the blocked punt that led to a 7-0 deficit and the 100-yard kick return for a touchdown. The blocked extra-point kick denied the Hawkeyes the lead after clawing back from a 27-7 deficit. The last miscue was minor, failing to down a Ryan Donahue punt inside the UA 5, but it's still one of those things winning teams get done.
In a 31-30 loss to Wisconsin, the Hawkeyes had a blocked PAT, several penalties and got caught in a punt return that ended up with Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman rushing right up the middle for 17 yards and a first down.
Because of defections and injury, Iowa's special teams were extraordinarily young last season. True freshman walk-on Mike Meyer was handed field goal duties after Trent Mossbrucker had an extra point blocked at Arizona. True freshmen James, Morris, Christian Kirksey, Don Shumpert and Anthony Hitchens saw roles on special teams. When Morris went full time on defense, the special teams depth chart had another adjustment.
Injuries to special teamers included Bruce Davis, a linebacker who was one of Iowa's best on those units. Jeff Tarpinian might not have seen as much ST as he did in 2009, but he probably would've been out there with his extensive experience if it weren't for the stinger. Paki O'Meara blocked a punt and scored a TD against Eastern Illinois and then suffered a concussion against Arizona and wasn't seen on ST again until the Insight Bowl.
Iowa was young, inexperienced and made a ton of mistakes on special teams. Senior punter Ryan Donahue, a four-year starter, was even a bit up and down. He capped his career with his best yardage, 44.6 yards a punt. He had 15 punts of 50-plus yards, but he also had 12 touchbacks, which kind of shows the general disarray Iowa dealt with on ST.
FOURTH DOWN -- CONCERNS: Punter is the easiest, most logical place to start. Donahue is among the greatest punters ever. The list might go 1) Reggie Roby, 2) Jason Baker, 3) Nile Kinnick, 4) Donahue and 5) that one time Nate Kaeding punted (kidding, kidding, I know there's a solid 5 out there somewhere, just not jumping to me right now).
Now, it's Eric Guthrie's job to lose, maybe. He has one career punt going into his senior year, a 32-yarder against Iowa State last season. He's a giant at 6-6, 245. He was born in San Salvador, El Salvador. He averaged 37.2 yards on 135 career punts at Nevada High School. He's a fifth-year walk-on, so you know he wants the job. This is his one chance to take it.
"If you would've told me he was a candidate four years ago, I would've told you he's a nice young man, extremely intelligent, I think he's a presidential candidate, but candidate for this job, I probably would have said probably not," Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. "That's the neat thing about college football. Last year, he really did a good job. I think he'll do a real nice job. He's extremely conscientious."
The key there is "I think he'll do a real nice job." As in, he will and he is the No. 1.
Alongside Guthrie is redshirt freshman Jonny Mullings, the punter from Down Under. (Sorry about that.) He stepped onto campus last year with very little American football (sorry about that, have to differentiate here) under his belt. He might still be acclimating to punting with a rush in his face. If he doesn't crack the lineup this year, he'll be in line for a potential three-year run as starter (I say "potential" because he's nearly or already is 23). Here's more on the "International Man of Mystery." He's an interesting story.
That's where punter is. There really aren't any other contenders, unless Solon's Marshall Koehn, an incoming freshman walk-on, gives it a try. He's likely ticketed for kickoffs and field goals.
Guthrie or Mullings, but by the sounds of the "will," it's Guthrie for now.
THIRD DOWN -- ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: The punter-kicker duties always will be split at Iowa, by Ferentz decree. Donahue discussed the topic at the NFL combine.
Donahue served solely as Iowa’s punter for four years, but he said he’s totally open to kicking, if it will help expand his NFL possibilities.
Kicking was never in the conversation for Donahue at Iowa. Early in Ferentz’s tenure, the Hawkeyes tried Kaeding as punter and kicker. The punting thing didn’t take, but Kaeding went on to become a Lou Groza Award winner, Iowa’s all-timer and is a Pro Bowl kicker for the San Diego Chargers.
“I wanted it to be [kicking in the conversation], but coach Ferentz really wanted me to be a punter,” Donahue said. “He thinks punters are few and far between.”
Donahue still kicked in practice at Iowa. “Just to rattle the kickers a little bit,” he said.
We haven't discussed returns yet. That's where a few freshmen (Torrey Campbell or Jordan Lomax or Jordan Canzeri) could potentially help.
Of course, Iowa is going to miss the kick return skills of Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, who led the Big Ten last season with 29.3 yards on 17 returns including an 88-yard TD at Minnesota. DJK was arguably Iowa's best kick return specialist since Tim Dwight.
As far as other additions, expect these units to employ at least a handful of true freshmen, maybe more than six.
Kickoff: Greg Castillo, Jack Swanson, Don Nordmann, Anthony Hitchens, C.J. Fiedorowicz, Brad Herman, Jason White, Tom Donatell, Nick Kuchel, Shane DiBona and Mike Meyer (kicker).
Kick return: Paki O'Meara, DiBona, Nordmann, Hitchens, Tanner Miller, Fiedorowicz, Lebron Daniel, Zach Derby, Jonathan Gimm, Keenan Davis (return) and Paul Chaney (return).
Field goal: Allen Reisner, Kyle Haganman, Markus Zusevics, Riley Reiff, Andrew Schulze, Brett Van Sloten, Casey McMillan, Karl Klug, Brett Morse and Meyer (kicker).
Punt team: Micah Hyde, Tyler Sash, Derby, Reisner, Schulze, Dakota Getz, Troy Johnson, Morse, O'Meara, Prater and Ryan Donahue (punter).
Punt return: Prater, O'Meara, Herman, Broderick Binns, Klug, Adrian Clayborn, Jordan Bernstine, Hyde, Hitchens, Swanson and Chaney (return).
There are 55 spots on these squads. The italicized players have graduated or have left early for the NFL. There are 21 italicized, so Iowa will have to replace about half of its special teams units from the bowl game, including punter, punt returner, kick returner and signal caller on punt team (which I believe was Morse or Sash).
Replace about half the squads. That's a considerable pool of players.
SECOND DOWN -- BATTLES BREWING: We covered punter in "concerns." That's certainly a battle. Let's focus on kicker here.
As always, seemingly, there is a battle.
Sophomore Mike Meyer will carry the mantle into spring 2011. He is the sitting starter, hitting 14 of 17 attempts as a true freshman walk-on last fall (he's on scholarship now). Let's run some comparisons of a few Iowa kickers and how they did in their first seasons -- Nate Kaeding 14 of 22 (8 of 11 from 40-49), Kyle Schlicher 21 of 26 (3 of 7 from 40-49), Daniel Murray 7 of 10 (3 of 4 from 40-49) and Trent Mossbrucker 13 of 15 (0 of 0 from 40-49).
So, Meyer compares favorably. He was 2 of 3 from 40-plus with a long of 42. He missed just three (Ohio State miss stung but didn't kill and Indiana miss (22) really could've come back to haunt the Hawkeyes).
He would seem to be on solid footing after a year in which he kicked his way into the lineup. In fall camp, Meyer was
No. 3. Daniel Murray suffered a hip flexor injury that pile drived his season into the turf. He was the sitting kicker, but was limited to one squib kickoff in '10.
After a solid freshman year that essentially ended when Murray was picked for the game-winner against Penn State in '08, Mossbrucker redshirted and returned last season with designs on the job. He was next kicker in until he had a PAT blocked at Arizona that would've given Iowa a 28-27 lead after clawing back from a 27-7 deficit.
Mossbrucker didn't kick again in '10 and finished with no field goal attempts and 13 of 14 PATs. His last field goal attempt was Nov. 1, 2008 against Illinois.
After Mossbrucker had the PAT blocked, Meyer was given the job. He held onto it, but you have to assume there's a competition. Kicker has been shaky the last two years. Special teams co-coach Lester Erb will explore every option, including Koehn, who led Iowa preps last season with 13 of 18 field goals with a long of 48.
Sophomore Casey Kreiter is the only long snapper on Iowa's spring roster. He jumped into action last season when Andrew Schulze, a four-year starter at the position, suffered an injury.
As for the return spots, as of now, senior wide receiver Marvin McNutt is listed as the No. 1 punt returner. Could happen, but is what he can possibly bring in punt returns worth the risk of injury, especially given what McNutt means to the offense? He has more career pass attempts (five) than career punt returns (zero). It's a possibility, but punt return is more likely going to be filled by an underclassmen wide receiver or defensive back. Sophomore Jordan Cotton could be on that list along with maybe a Kevonte Martin-Manley.
Wide receiver Keenan Davis likely will be one kick returner. He's the only one listed right now. He's the only one on the roster who's done it (7 for 131 with a long of 22). Well, tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz did return one last season, too. The other returner will likely come from the running backs, with, perhaps, De'Andre Johnson in line.
FIRST DOWN -- "On Iowa" prediction for 2011: This probably isn't much of a prediction, but Meyer should hang on to the placekicking and kickoff duties.
There's really no comparison between Meyer and Mossbrucker on kickoffs. Meyer averaged 65.12 a boot last season with 15 touchbacks. In 2009, Murray produced only five touchbacks. Mossbrucker averaged 42.80 on five kicks last season and he has no career touchbacks.
Meyer has the stronger leg and he now has a year of experience. He'll have competition, but he's set up for a long reign as Iowa's kicker.
Guthrie will get first crack at punter and the ball is in his court. Can he hold it? Can Mullings develop enough challenge and pass?
Donahue averaged 44.59, 40.92, 41.56 and 41.08 in his four seasons. Pre-Donahue, it was Andy Fenstermaker, who averaged 37.63.
So, put the acceptable number between 37.63 and 41 yards. First one to consistently hit those distances wins the job. It's too early and there isn't enough information to make a brash prediction here. Guthrie has to like where he sits for now.
Illinois -- The Fighting Illini can start with suberb kicker Derek Dimke, who was all-conference last season after hitting 24 of 29 field goals. Rating -- Honorable mention. The Illini have to replace all-Big Ten punter Anthony Santella.
Indiana -- Kicker Mitch Ewald made 16 of 19 attempts and was named honorable mention All-Big Ten from the league's coaches. Rating -- Honorable mention. Punter Chris Hagerup (39.2 yards per punt) needs to improve. IU's best returner Tandon Doss bolted early to the NFL.
Iowa -- Iowa has some holes to fill on special teams units that cost the Hawkeyes games in 2010. Rating -- Honorable mention. With Ryan Donahue off to the NFL, Iowa has nothing sturdy to peg special teams on. Punter is a questionmark. No returner with a proven track record.
Michigan -- The Wolverines' special teams were atrocious last season. They were 4-of-14 on field-goal attempts, ranking last in the Big Ten. The Wolverines also were seventh in punting, eighth in both punt and kickoff return average, and 10th in kickoff coverage. Rating -- Honorable mention. New special teams coach Dan Ferrigno has his work cut out for him.
Michigan State -- Keshawn Martin is the most explosive return threat in the conference, averaging a league-best 14.2 yards on 16 punt returns last season. If the Big Ten had a special teams player of the year -- and why doesn't it? -- he would've been a candidate. Rating -- First team. The Spartans do lose punter Aaron Bates, but they still have first-team all-Big Ten kicker Dan Conroy (14 of 15 last season).
Minnesota -- Keshawn Martin has punt returns and Minnesota's Troy Stoudermire has kick returns. The senior has racked up a career total of 2,929 yards returning kicks. Rating -- Honorable mention. The Gophers have a punter in Dan Orseske, but he averaged just 36.1 yards a punt last season. They are in the market for a field goal kicker.
Nebraska -- The Huskers have a lot of newness with the departure of all-American punter/kick Alex Henery. Rating -- Second team. The Huskers could have a redshirt freshman punter and a junior kicker, never of whom with a career attempt. Also, the loss of Niles Paul leaves a hole in the return game.
Northwestern -- Wide receiver Venric Mark was a positive for NU's special teams as a true freshman last season, averaging 10.0 yards per punt return on five attempts and 23.8 yards per kickoff return on six attempts. Rating -- Second team. The Cats have a solid punter in Brandon Williams, who averaged 40.0 yards as a freshman. Kicker will be a race between Jeff Budzien and Steve Flaherty.
Ohio State -- Drew Basil gets his shot at kicker. Punter Ben Buchanan and his 41 average return. Jordan Hall is one of the premier punt and kick returners in the Big Ten. Jamaal Berry isn't far behind. Rating -- Silver football. While Jim Tressel is under fire, Ohio State's roster is sterling.
Penn State -- Adrian Clayborn's blocked punt in 2009 and Florida's blocked punt and TD in the Outback Bowl show that Penn State is unplugged somewhere on special teams. Rating -- Honorable mention. Penn State needs to replace kicker Collin Wagner and find some kick return specialists.
Purdue -- Kicker Carson Wiggs will be in his fourth year as a starter and ranks tied for third on Purdue career field goal percentage at .688. He made 14 of 21 last season. Rating -- Second team. Punter Cody Webster returns, but needs to be more consistent. The return teams have been kind of meh and could use a burst.Wisconsin -- Kicker Phillip Welch and punter Brad Nortman return. Both were OK in 2010, with Welch hitting 17 of 22 field goals. Rating -- Second team. All-time Big Ten return yardage leader David Gilreath is gone. His replacement could be running back James White.