Iowa Football

4 Downs with Iowa's special teams: The Hawkeyes will probably spring some 'trickeration'

Iowa probably will still go for it on special teams, as far as anyone knows, anyway

Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

A closer look at Iowa’s special teams entering the 2019 season.

The kickers: Caleb Shudak (5-8, 180, jr.), Keith Duncan (5-10, 180, jr.), Lucas Amaya (6-3, 200, fr.)

The punters: Colten Rastetter (6-1, 213, sr.), Michael Sleep-Dalton (6-1, 212, sr.), Ryan Gersonde (6-4, 198, so.)

The long snappers: Jackson Subbert (6-3, 243, sr.), Nate Vejvoda (6-5, 250, sr.), Austin Spiewak (6-1, 232, jr.)

The kick returner: Ihmir Smith-Marsette (6-1, 183, jr.)

The punt returners: Nico Ragaini (6-0, 192, #fr.), Terry Roberts (5-10, 176, #fr.)

First Down

The part that makes “trickeration” work is the element of surprise.

No, Minnesota probably didn’t see a sideways snap to the tight end coming. No, Ohio State didn’t know you could do the “polecat” thing. And Penn State probably wondered why defensive tackle Sam Brincks was going out for a pass on a field-goal attempt.

In his first two seasons as Iowa’s special teams coordinator LeVar Woods has tapped into the possibilities as far as trickeration goes. In other words, the Hawkeyes have let the world know that all bets are off on special teams. Your special teams units better be coached to know that you need to cover the center if he’s actually the end. They better know the rules and nuances or they better call timeout.

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“We’re constantly trying to find advantages and chinks in the armor, if you will, of our opponents,” Woods said this spring. “ ... We’re constantly, constantly trying to find holes in what they’re doing.”

Obviously, now that opponents know, this is going to be tougher to pull off. Yes, you have fun with these. Who wouldn’t? You love when your team is aggressive and goes for broke.

There was that one that didn’t work last year. Leading 28-13 in the finale against Nebraska, Iowa had a fourth-and-2 at the Nebraska 3. Conventional wisdom had the Hawkeyes kicking the field goal to go ahead three scores.

Holder Colton Rastetter flipped a shovel pass to tight end T.J. Hockenson. It didn’t work and it allowed the Huskers some life. They almost took the ultimate advantage.

“Maybe we got greedy, but we were playing to win,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said after the game.

Ferentz will remain the gatekeeper on these plays. Woods and his staff come up with the ideas, but they have to sell it to Ferentz.

And he’s not saying “no,” at least not every time.

“You know, if it’s one more way to make somebody have a tougher time preparing for us or keeping them on edge, then yeah, we’ll definitely try to be smart about that,” Ferentz said on media day.

So, they’re still going to go for it. Probably. As far as you know, anyway.

Second Down

We know a lot of the fun stuff about graduate transfer punter Michael Sleep-Dalton. He’s Australian. He can punt with either foot. He worked as an industrial electrician and owns a house back in Australia.

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He’s also coming to Iowa from Arizona State. Sleep-Dalton was supposed to be here for spring football. Remember that polar vortex stuff in January and February?

“They (Iowa coaches) didn’t want me to run into it that quickly,” Sleep-Dalton said. “I had the car packed, I had my transcripts done. School was sorted. Then there was that really bad weather that week, negative-50 degrees or something. They thought they didn’t want me to rush into it and experience Iowa that way. Looking out for me, I guess.”

But seriously, Sleep-Dalton comes in with some high expectations. On raw average, Sleep-Dalton finished fourth in the Pc-12 with 43.8 yards per punt. The website BCF Toys has a few metrics that speak to efficiency. In the punt efficiency measure (the average values generated per punt based on the field position of the punt team and the field position at the conclusion of the play), Arizona State was 75th. Reminder, the Sun Devils finished 7-6, so probably average and/or inexperienced in the coverage units.

As far as having a role in Iowa’s special teams trickery, Sleep-Dalton is up for it. He believes he might be a better runner than passer.

“I’m down to run the ball or throw it, whatever I’ve got to do,” he said.

Third Down

Wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette was the Big Ten return specialist of the year in 2018. He led the league with 29.7 yards on 24 kick returns.

Smith-Marsette clearly is a weapon. He’s less so when he tries to leap a defender and ends up fumbling, like what happened in the Outback Bowl.

Any hesitation that play might’ve given the Iowa staff has evaporated. New year, new Ihmir, according to offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz.

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“Developing that attitude of playing the next play, trying to build on things, taking care of the football and making smart plays, I couldn’t be more pleased with the growth that he’s shown,” Ferentz said.

By the way, according to BCF Toys, Smith-Marsette had Iowa at No. 8 in the country in kick return efficiency. That’s good for a team that sets its clock by field position.

Fourth Down

If you’re into snapshot inferences, the Hawkeyes showed during Kids Day who might fill the super-important role of “gunners” on special teams. These are the first defenders down the field who are free to rally to the returner.

All the candidates were defensive backs — D.J. Johnson, Riley Moss were first team; Terry Roberts and Matt Hankins were second team.

Roberts is a name you also could hear in the return game at some point.

“A kid who’s jumped up a little bit in my eyes when he has the ball in his hand is Terry Roberts,” Woods said. “He’s not the most graceful fielding the ball and he hasn’t played here yet, but he’s pretty electric with the ball in his hands.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8256; marc.morehouse@thegazette.com

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