Four Downs -- The Special Teams (spring edition)
Key players return, but can Iowa turn special teams into an advantage?
QUICK LOOK BACK: There's no denying Iowa took positive steps in special teams last season.
Senior Jordan Cotton led the Big Ten in kick returns with 28.21 on 19 attempts. The kick coverage spiked to No. 24 in the country, allowing just 19.34 per return. That followed seasons where that unit ranked No. 58 and 51 and was its best since ranking ninth in the country (18.36) in '09.
Senior kicker Mike Meyer was third in the Big Ten with an 81.0 percent success rate (17 of 21 field goals). It was a rebound from just 70 percent in 2011 (14 of 20) and a career high in field goals for a season (surpassing 14 from his freshman year). He started the season 14 of 15 and made all four in a double-overtime victory at Michigan State, including the 42-yard game-winner. The averaged distance made for his field goals was 30.76.
Sophomore Connor Kornbrath split duties with John Wienke and finished ninth in the Big Ten with 37.92 yards a kick. It was his true freshman season and there were no major explosions. Kornbrath will face higher expectations this season, but he held up his end of the deal in '11.
(Stat that maybe shows the futility of Iowa's offense last season is the fact that Iowa punted more than its opponents for the first time since 2007.)
Some positives. Meyer goes into his senior season an established Big Ten kicker. Kornbrath got his feet wet. Cotton introduced himself to Iowa-dom as a football player.
But . . . that . . . onside . . . kick.
The onside kick that Central Michigan successfully executed and parlayed into a 32-31 victory at Kinnick Stadium might be your only take away from special teams '12. It was a mess.
“There are guys assigned to blocking and there are guys assigned to receiving,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “We didn’t do a very good job at either one.”
Iowa has a special teams coordinator now.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Can Kornbrath take a step forward?
The 37.92 average was 97th in the nation last season. Compared to the previous five seasons -- four years of Ryan Donahue and one with Eric Guthrie -- that's the lowest ranking (from '11 to '07, Iowa punters ranked 51st, 16th, 54th, 35th and 54th).
Last season, 41.03 ranked in the 50s. Is that doable for Kornbrath? Here's what special teams coordinator Chris White said:
"I think if you ask Connor, obviously it was growing pains for him at times last year, and we’re trying to get him to be more consistent," said White, who comes to Iowa as special teams/running backs coach after four years as special teams assistant with the Minnesota Vikings. "You know, he has a really strong leg. He’s a big kid (6-6, 240). He’s flexible for a big guy. Working on a few techniques and fundamentals just to keep him nice and compact and really driving through the ball. And we want to just eliminate the miss-hits with him and really just be more consistent, because I think he’s a very talented kicker/punter."
The competition there is Jonny Mullings, a junior who's never punted.
White talked about the importance he puts on starting field position, for and against.
Last season, the Vikings were third in the NFL with an average starting field position of the 24.6. This stat pretty much falls uniformly for the 2012 Hawkeyes. In four victories, Iowa enjoyed an average starting field position at its 35.0 and held opponents to starts at their 28.1. In eight defeats, the Hawkeyes started at their 23.2-yard line, while opponents enjoyed starts from their 30.0.
Extrapolated over time, who knows what the exact correlation would be for field position and wins, but something is there. For every "X" amount of yards a team is closer to the end zone, a team will add "X" amount of wins. Of course, this is a number that is affected by more than special teams. Offensive turnovers are an automatic swing in starting field position for your opponent, but kickoffs and punts are special teams.
Iowa will go into '13 with a QB who's never taken a snap in a game. The defense will need all the help it can get. These yards add up and these will be numbers worth tracking.
THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Micah Hyde returned punts the last two seasons for Iowa. The Micah Hyde who returned an interception to win the '10 Insight Bowl and who took a lateral for another dazzling TD return that helped Iowa bury Michigan State earlier that season never showed up on punt return.
White talked this week about the "shield" punt coverage that has become vogue in college football. It puts seven players in position to easily access lanes and contain even the most dangerous punt returners. In the NFL, only the gunners are allowed to rush down field.
The conclusion here is Iowa's philosophy is fair catch, keep it a simple exchange of possession and get the offense on the field. Hyde called for 14 fair catches last season. With the MSU INT return and the dive for the pylon, you have to assume fair catch is what Hyde was coached to do in quite a few scenarios.
Does that change? Probably not.
After Hyde, Iowa didn't lose anyone who played a huge role on special teams last season, including long snapper Casey Kreiter. Cotton won the team's special teams MVP.
SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: Cotton should be the focus of kick return. The Iowa pattern has been a main threat and a guy who might occasionally get a touch. Last season, Keenan Davis and Greg Garmon got shots before Cotton took the job and literally ran with it.
Cotton kick returns accounted for four of Iowa's top 15 yardage plays last season, with his 95-yard kick return TD against Penn State being the longest. He had another kick return for a TD called back at Michigan State. It took four years, but Cotton took full advantage of his opportunity last season. His special teams performance but him back on the WR depth chart, something he has a chance to grow this year.
"We’re going to run the same returns that we ran with Percy Harvin," White said, referring to the former Minnesota Vikings star (who's now a Seattle Seahawk). "I hope Jordan can do the same things Percy did, and I know Jordan did a nice job on kickoff return last year."
Who's the other kick returner? Who'll return punts?
Sophomore running back Jordan Canzeri returned kicks as a true freshman in 2011. Junior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley also did the job in '11, as did junior running back Damon Bullock.
"There’s a whole list of candidates, and to be honest with you, I’m trying to learn everyone’s name," White joked.
"I think Kevonte has a chance to be a guy. Little Riley McCarron [walk-on freshman, 5-9 182], I tell you what, he catches punts great. There’s a couple defensive guys that catch the ball pretty good, [Maurice] Fleming. That’s just off the top of my head right there.
"Jordan Canzeri is a punt return and kickoff return. What we’re doing, like [linebacker/special teams coach] LeVar [Woods] said, is we’re trying to put the guys in competitive periods. At the end of practice everything’s going to be a compete deal, and for the returns as well. We’re either going to punt it or shoot a jug there and there’s going to be guys flying at them. I want to see who can catch it with bullets flying at them, who can leverage the ball, who can get off a block and make a play. So, we’re finding out a lot about the guys who can play in space and the guys who can catch the ball and who are not afraid to catch the ball."
Meyer, Kornbrath and Kreiter are set.
Kicker Marshall Koehn is capable and probably takes over for Meyer as a junior in '14. Can Mullings challenge Kornbrath? No evidence on that. Kreiter is a senior. A possible heir apparent for him is walk-on freshman Tyler Kluver, a 6-0, 220-pounder from Marshalltown who received interest from colleges for his long snapping expertise. Minnesota, North Texas and Wyoming joined Iowa.
Long snapper is a big deal. According to Rivals.com, last year 25 schools had long snappers who were awarded scholarships coming out of high school or junior college.
Kohl's Kicking Camps ranked Kluver the No. 2 long snapper in the nation. He also played in the Under Armour All-American game last January.
FIRST DOWN — WHAT COULD HAPPEN: Let's go out on a limb and say Iowa won't lose a game this year because of an onside kick. It's been three straight seasons where you could attribute at least part of an Iowa loss to an onside kick (Minnesota in '10 and '11 and CMU last year). Fool someone four times and shame on them.
-- Cotton should be a force in kick return and maybe punt return. He wants the punt job. Depending on his role as a receiver, why not? Probably the bigger question is will Iowa treat punt return as an offensive play or stay safe (think safe).
-- Will Iowa find a player who has that knack for blocking kicks? That kind of just happens. In recent years for Iowa, Sean Considine and Kenny Iwebema set records for blocked punts and kicks. Does Iowa have that guy? Three candidates: 1) safety John Lowdermilk, 2) safety Anthony Gair and 3) WR Don Shumpert, who might actually be the best bet. Shumpert stood out kick coverage last season with at least a few physical plays.
-- Where does Kornbrath go? What does Iowa need out of him? That remains to be seen, but expect improvement. Will it help for him not be be looking of his shoulder? Last year, John Wienke was handed the short-punting duty and was pretty good. If you're Kornbrath and you're a competitor, you probably want that job. You probably want the whole punting job.
-- Does Meyer have a 22-FG season in him? If he does, he would tie Nate Kaeding for Iowa's career FG total (67). Meyer goes into '13 with 45 career field goals. Kaeding is probably safe. Twenty two also would be a season record at Iowa.
Here's what he's been working on this winter: "I think refining would be a good word for it. No big changes, kind of small tweaks here and there. Just small things like how big the jab step is on my first step or just as simple as keeping my head down longer."