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IOWA CITY — The 2022 fall football camp “kind of reminds” Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods of 2017.
“When we first started, we didn’t know who the returner was,” Woods said. “Who was this No. 6? Ihmir Smith-Marsette. Who’s No. 21? With Ivory Kelly-Martin. … Then we put them in and, bang, things took off.”
Now, Woods is looking for another takeoff from his returners in 2022 after the departure of Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year Charlie Jones. He doesn’t have a starter picked out yet, but he’s confident in his options.
“I think we’re in a good situation,” Woods said. “We just need the reps and the game experience.”
Players still “in the mix” for punt returning include Cooper DeJean, Arland Bruce IV, Alec Wick, Kaden Wetjen, T.J. Hall and Riley Moss, Woods said.
DeJean and Bruce were back for punt returns in Saturday’s open practice.
Then at kick returner, Woods mentioned Terry Roberts, Kaleb Johnson, Leshon Williams and Gavin Williams. He believes Roberts also “has potential” at punt returning, as well, although the cornerback has “more so” been working at kick returning.
Woods did not rule out having the same player do punt and kick returns, like what Jones did. “The best two guys” will be the kick returners, and the best one or two players will be returning punts, Woods said.
Part of the preseason mystery at returner is because of how omnipresent Jones was in this aspect of the game.
The Deerfield, Ill., native fielded 58 of Iowa’s 61 punt returns and 25 of 42 kick returns the last two seasons.
But just because the 2022 candidates weren’t playing in games as punt/kick returner doesn’t necessarily mean the return duties are totally new to them.
“They didn’t just think about this this year,” Woods said. “They’ve been working over the last year or two years for some of these guys.”
If the similarities between the 2017 and 2022 return squads translate into the in-season results, the Hawkeyes would be in a good position.
Iowa’s 2017 kick returners averaged 24.4 yards, and the punt returners averaged 6.2 yards. That’s not far off from Jones’ 25.4 yards per kick return and 7.7 yards per punt return.
Many of the advanced analytics measured the Hawkeyes’ special teams favorably in 2017 as well. Iowa ranked 37th in special teams efficiency in ESPN’s Football Power Index and 22nd in Football Outsiders’ special teams efficiency ratings.
The Hawkeyes have had one of the most efficient special teams units in the last three seasons, ranking in the top 10 of ESPN’s FPI special teams efficiency ratings. ESPN included Woods in a July list of 45 minority coaches under the age of 45 “to watch for future Division I head-coaching jobs.”
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