During the Hawkeyes’ 2019 media day last month, everyone met Keith Duncan. Again. It was like running into an acquaintance on a busy street.
Awkward hellos were exchanged. He did recognize a few faces from the media horde that covered his 33-yard field goal to beat Michigan in 2016. The game was broadcast on ABC with 10 million people watching. The Wolverines were ranked No. 2 or 3 in whichever poll. It was Nov. 12, so the results came with heavy implications.
Duncan, then a true freshman from North Carolina via Texas, ended up on the bottom of a pile during a wild celebration that saw the quarterback’s helmet being pilfered from the team bench and taken downtown for beers and rounds of social media pics.
Believe it or not, three years later, Duncan’s career is still interesting, to say the least.
On Monday, the junior from Weddington, N.C., was named the Big Ten’s special teams player of the week after kicking four field goals in the No. 18 Hawkeyes’ 18-17 victory at Iowa State last weekend.
Remember when Iowa women’s hoops star Megan Gustafson won the Big Ten player of the week honor for like two years straight? This is Duncan’s first Big Ten player of the week honor since that kick against Michigan in 2016 and first for an Iowa special teamer since Riley McCarron returned a punt for a TD against Illinois in 2016.
Joining Duncan on the Big Ten medals stand was redshirt freshman cornerback D.J. Johnson, who earned the Big Ten’s co-freshman of the week honors. Johnson had two pass breakups and eight tackles in his first start, filling in for injured junior Matt Hankins. Johnson is Iowa’s first freshman of the week since corner Riley Moss earned it last season.
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Three years is a long time in football. Duncan isn’t the same person and isn’t the same player.
“It was definitely worth it, but my mindset has changed,” Duncan said around 11 p.m. Saturday night in a weight room in one of ISU’s administrative buildings. “I’m a very religious guy. Talking with Jason Baker (former Iowa punter who spent seven of his 11 years in the NFL with the Carolina Panthers and who knows the Duncan family) about this, there’s a difference in kicking ‘free,’
“That’s how I feel now. Once you know God’s in control and he’s got it for you, you can kick free and there’s no stress and that’s how I feel. It’s an amazing feeling. I wish I can keep it going.”
Faith is always a good thing. But think for a second about the engineering of a football team, especially the Hawkeyes. There are probably a lot of programs out there that do this, but the Hawkeyes have a separate bus for linemen. They need more room. They are the apex predators of the Iowa program.
Kickers? They practice “over there.” They have their own worlds. Usually, there isn’t a lot of them. They have to prove themselves on the field before they’re even offered scholarships.
Faith is fuel for these guys. It’s the spackle that keeps doubt on the other side of the wall.
Duncan probably faced a few doubts during a two-year hiatus.
“Just a little bit,” Duncan said with a laugh when asked about the pressure kickers endure. “It’s a weight lifted off your shoulders, you could say. It’s awesome. It’s hard to describe. I can’t really put it into words. Freshman year is a lot different than how I’m kicking now. I think it shows a little bit.”
Well, Duncan is the No. 1 field goal kicker in the country headed into week 4. He’s 8-for-8 this year, tying him for most field goals made in the country with, well, three others. By the way, there are 32 perfect kickers around the country after three weeks.
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“Great moment for him, so happy for him, but the bigger story is how he’s handled it,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said. “A couple of years ago, he was a young guy and kind of acted like a young guy, but, boy, he’s been riveted in, wired in. Both of those guys (including kickoff specialist Caleb Shudak, who also waited behind Miguel Recinos) sat behind Miguel and competed. They’re both kicking really well in practice. The big story to me is how they stuck with it and tried to improve. I think we have a lot of guys on our roster who’ve done that in the last year and a half.”
Johnson started the season as Iowa’s starting “cash” safety. With opponents throwing tight ends at the Hawkeyes on the majority of snaps in the first three games, defensive coordinator Phil Parker has almost 100 percent called Iowa’s 4-3 base defense, so Johnson saw his snaps shrink.
Hankins left the Rutgers game in the second half with a hamstring injury. With Julius Brents and Riley Moss sidelined with knee injuries, Johnson, Iowa’s No. 5 corner, got the call up against the Cylones.
The Cyclones and QB Brock Purdy went right at Johnson. The Cyclones got him to bite on a flea flicker and that went for a 51-yard TD and a 7-3 lead. Then, on the second play of the third quarter, Purdy got Johnson and free safety Jack Koerner in a missed exchange and that led to a 73-yard TD.
There was nowhere for Johnson to hide.
“I just keep talking to God,” Johnson said. “I always put God first. I just prayed and kept my confidence, kept talking to myself mentally. I just stayed ready for whatever and tried to do my job.”
Flea flickers get a lot of defensive backs. Johnson didn’t let himself off the hook there.
“Not at all,” he said. “Of course, coach (Phil Parker) was mad, but I went back to the bench and the guys were all supportive and talking with me. I just kept playing and kept my head up. It all worked out in the end.”
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