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INDIANAPOLIS — Iowa’s continued special teams success is hardly news by now.
Football Outsiders had Iowa as second in the FBS in 2021, 10th in 2020 and third in 2019. ESPN’s Football Power Index had the unit as sixth in 2021 and fourth in 2020 and 2019.
That level of play has become the norm in Iowa City, but the Hawkeyes’ Big Ten neighbors have shown that consistent excellence in special teams is not something to be taken for granted.
Six of the 14 Big Ten teams ranked worse than 100th in special teams efficiency in ESPN’s FPI in 2021.
Iowa, under the tutelage of special teams coordinator LeVar Woods, is the only Big Ten team to be in the top 10 of the statistic in each of the last three seasons.
Rutgers has reached that mark in two of the last three seasons, but no other team has finished 25th or better multiple times since 2019.
“It takes work,” Rutgers Coach Greg Schiano said at Big Ten Media Days. “It takes precision. … It’s a very nuanced part of the game of football.”
Schiano considers special teams as the “largest exchange of real estate that occurs on a consistent basis in the game of football,” and he prioritizes it accordingly.
“When you look at kickoff and kickoff returns, those are offensive and defensive plays,” Schiano said. “The only difference is instead of lining up in a formation and running the play, you line up spread out all over the field and then you run to get to that formation.”
One doesn’t have to look far to see the special teams interest in Iowa City, whether that’s from players or coaches.
When Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year Charlie Jones left via the transfer portal, an abundance of players expressed interest in taking over punt or kick returns.
“Specialists, that’s what they do,” Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “But for the other guys, if they’re not excited about it, (that’s a) pretty good indication we’re not going to put them out there.”
As simple as making special teams a priority may sound, many Big Ten teams have proved otherwise.
Nebraska Coach Scott Frost has plenty of experience playing on special teams — “that’s pretty much the only way I stayed in the NFL for six years,” he said at Big Ten Media Days — but the numbers haven’t been pretty in Lincoln, Neb.
Nebraska’s special teams efficiency was 128th last year, according to ESPN’s FPI.
“It's been an emphasis for us,” Frost said in Indianapolis. “We're looking forward to working on that some more.”
Punting in particular, Frost said, “cost us a couple games” in 2021. Iowa’s 28-21 comeback win would probably fall in that category.
“The kids know how important it is,“ Frost said.
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