116 3rd St SE
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AMES — Special teams can be a proving ground of sorts for young players.
Young linebackers, defensive backs and defensive ends can prove themselves on kickoffs and punts.
Tight ends and fullbacks can show their blocking mettle on kick returns.
Reserve offensive linemen can help on field goals and point after attempts.
It’s not often a proven player asks to play special teams.
It’s even rarer when a Heisman Trophy contender asks.
Breece Hall led the nation in rushing last season, scored 21 rushing touchdowns and finished sixth in Heisman voting. After the season, he went to Coach Matt Campbell and asked if he could take Kene Nwangwu’s spot as Iowa State’s kick returner.
Nwangwu held the spot since he was a freshman. He was a backup running back to David Montgomery and Hall, yet he was still drafted in the fourth round of the NFL draft by the Minnesota Vikings, mainly because of his kick-return ability.
Hall wants to show he’s more than just the best running back in college football. He wants to show he has no problems returning kicks, too.
“The more we’re around Breece, the more it doesn’t surprise us,” ISU running backs and receivers coach Nate Scheelhaase said. “Breece isn’t the typical starting running back. Normal starting running backs are in the backfield and say, ‘This is my job, this is my role and this is what I do.’ Breece is hungry to do more and learn more.”
Kickoffs are often seen as some of the most dangerous plays in a game, so who knows if the coaches will oblige Hall’s request. But it wouldn’t be too surprising to see him back there situationally.
If Iowa State is in a tie game or down by a touchdown in the second half and needs to flip momentum and get good field position, it would make sense to put Hall back there if he can break off a big return.
“If Breece can help the football team by returning kicks, that’s what he’s looking to do,” Scheelhaase said. “I don’t know that we’d put him as an upback on punt but if we can get the ball in his hands in the kick-return game, that’s a great opportunity for him to display what he does best.”
The Cyclones are looking at a few other options as kick returners as well.
True freshmen Jaylin Noel, Deon Silas and Eli Sanders have all been back there during fall camp as has first-team All-Big 12 receiver Xavier Hutchinson.
Noel is a receiver like Hutchinson while Silas and Sanders are both running backs.
Noel seems to be the one who has impressed the staff the most during fall camp.
“He’s a tremendous athlete and it allows him to, along with his intelligence, be a really good player at a young age,” Scheelhaase said of Noel. “Jaylin played on special teams in high school and was a returner and he can help us there. He also has great get-off in going after punts, too, and he can obviously return the ball.
“He does provide us with another weapon we can use on special teams.”
Receiver Tarique Milton will be Iowa State’s punt returner now that he’s healthy. But it sounds like if Milton is bitten by the injury bug again, Noel will have no problem handling punt-return duties.
As for the people kicking the ball on the special teams side of things, senior Australian Corey Dunn will take over from Joe Rivera, who took over for Dunn when Dunn tore his Achilles.
Kickoffs have been a sticking point for Iowa State over the last several years. The Cyclones’ primary kickoff specialist, Drake Nettles, only had two touchbacks all of last season.
“We had to cover more kicks than anybody in college football last year,” Campbell said. “The kickoff is a challenging play no matter how you slice it, and I think we have an outstanding kick-coverage team. I’ve always been really proud of what that group has done but it’s just the law of averages, the more opportunities teams get in kickoffs, the more challenging that is. There were moments last year where our kickoffs hurt our football team.”
Luckily for Iowa State, Campbell brought in Fordham transfer Andrew Mevis, who had 50 touchbacks in 63 kickoffs — a far cry from two.
Mevis also made 75 percent of his field goals and should compete with Connor Assalley, who made 68 percent of his field goals.
“What we’ve seen as camp continues to evolve is Andrew has a lot of strengths,” Campbell said. “He has a really strong leg, which has been really fun to watch and see but I also think the growth of Drake Nettles and Connor Assalley has been fun to watch as well. All three of those guys give us an improved specialist room from where we were a year ago.”