CEDAR RAPIDS - The Cedar Rapids Titans and Sioux Falls Storm have met in the conference title game in each of the past four seasons.
If the Titans have any hope to make it five, they will need to dig out of an ever-increasing hole.
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No. 32 ... No other player was put under more scrutiny this offseason than junior punter Connor Kornbrath. It was softened by coaches saying they wanted to provide some competition for Kornbrath, but the fact of the matter is Iowa gave a junior college punter a scholarship. Junior Dillon Kidd is in Iowa City, and Kornbrath, who finished ninth in the Big Ten with 39.97 yards on 65 punts, is on notice.
“We did bring in a junior college punter. We felt that Connor needed to be pushed, and it’s helped Connor the first six practices for sure,” special teams coordinator Chris White said this spring. “It’s helped him, and Dillon is in heavy competition with Connor right now.”
More from White: “We’re trying to be fair to both of them. We’re competing every day, whether it’s in practice or specifically after practice. We’re charting every punt, and any time we’re outdoors we have to chart their hang times and their distances. We’ve got it all tabulated. Each day we’ll give them their averages and hang times and distances and really where we feel those guys are. At the end of spring we’ll kind of let them know where we feel they are. It’s not going to be a done deal until training camp. I know that for sure.
“But just felt that Connor — he would be the first one to admit it — he was inconsistent last year. He had some really fine moments where he punted the ball extremely well, but then there was times where his hang time hurt us. We’ve got to get more consistency out of the punter, and it’s hard. There’s a lot of windy games around here in the Big Ten, and we just felt that it was important for our football team, specifically our defense, where we’ve got to change the field with field position, and we felt we needed to have him compete against someone.”
A look at the numbers ... The 39.97 yards a kick was pedestrian. Ninth in the Big Ten is workable, but not optimum. Kornbrath excelled at placing punts. He put 27 inside of the opponent’s 20-yard line, which was tied for 10th in the nation and third in the Big Ten. Iowa finished with a net punting number of 37.5 yards, sixth in the Big Ten. The 21 punts returned against Iowa isn’t a bad number and he had just three touchbacks.
White mentioned hang time. Can that be measured in the number of punts returned? Partially. It’s also a wildly inconsistent measure. The bottom line is that Iowa wants more out of punter. That’s the only measure that matters.
Special teams still undergoing change ... One thing to keep in mind, this is White’s second season as Iowa special teams coordinator. The change with the special teams units will continue to swirl (remember the one returner on the kickoffs last season). Kornbrath was the starter White inherited. He’s still the starter, but you can’t discount the fact that a second-year special teams coach will do whatever he needs to do to find the personnel he’s most comfortable with.
No one is immune. Iowa also signed a kicker in the 2014 class.
“It’s an area that we think we need healthy competition this spring and this summer,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, “so we feel like we have a chance to have a good football team this next year. I know we’ve lost some really good players in that area, so we want to add to the competition.”
Outlook ... Iowa is all-in at punter. As I wrote about with Kidd at No. 45, Iowa has invested two scholarships in punters for the next two seasons. That’s a steep price to pay. Will the risk be worth the return? It probably already is. Ferentz was asked about punter in every press setting this spring. White will be asked about it at Iowa’s media day. The attention has been heightened. Neither punter should feel a comfort level, unless something that has been won decisively behind the scenes (didn’t sense that at the spring game).
Going into the 2013 season, Ferentz said, “I think with Connor, we’re really counting on him for more consistency this year. But it’s hard to just hand experience to a player; you just can’t do that, in particular a punter. That’s something you’ve got to go through. I thought he did a good job as a freshman, but we’re really looking forward to him growing in that role.”
A year and a juco punter later, that’s where it still stands.
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