Iowa Football

Iowa's punting is winning ... your hearts

Junior Colten Rastetter is doing the exact opposite of what you thought would happen for Iowa punting 2018

Iowa defensive ends Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson and defensive back Amani Hooker high-five punter Colten Rastetter during last Saturday’s game against Maryland at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Iowa defensive ends Matt Nelson and Anthony Nelson and defensive back Amani Hooker high-five punter Colten Rastetter during last Saturday’s game against Maryland at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — Sitting in the team hotel on the night before the Nebraska game, Colten Rastetter’s mom called and told him his dad, Thor, was in the hospital.

“Is he OK? I really didn’t know much about it,” Rastetter said.

The family assured Colten, Iowa’s punter the last two seasons, his dad was fine. Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz heard about it and kept checking in with Rastetter to make sure everything was OK.

“That was really awesome coming from him, showing he cares,” Rastetter said. “Actually, all of the coaches were like that.”

Iowa won, it hit the charter flight home and Rastetter was able to visit his dad in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics that night.

Thor Rastetter had lung trouble. Colten said everything is good, his dad is doing a lot better.

“I didn’t look at it as adversity, it was something that happens in life,” Rastetter, 21, said.

His father’s health scare was a gut punch heading into an offseason Rastetter knew would come with difficult questions.

He didn’t have a great 2017.

A walk-on from Guttenberg, Rastetter averaged just 37.8 yards per punt. True freshman Ryan Gersonde contributed some before an injury sidelined him, but Iowa did finish 13th in the Big Ten with a 38.6 average last season. The was the lowest since 2013 (37.8).

For a team that puts a premium on field position, that cut into the Hawkeyes.

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What made Rastetter’s offseason a little more mysterious was how Ferentz might’ve handled his uncalled fake punt against Ohio State. In the third quarter, Rastetter gave a run a shot. It didn’t work. Ohio State scored.

Ferentz might’ve been done with it after making his point on the sideline. What hung more with Ferentz was the actual punting. Don’t run uncalled fakes, obviously, but the punting part. That had to improve and, last week, Ferentz said he was somewhat skeptical.

“I wasn’t ready to sign off on Colten going into the season,” Ferentz said in his Maryland postgame. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

There was obvious noise on the outside about punter. There also was noise coming from the inside. The problem was obvious.

“I failed to shut out the outside noise in a way and it kind of affected me,” Rastetter said. “I don’t have any social media right now and it helps out. The way I talk to myself in preparation leading up to the game really helps out a lot.”

The exact opposite of what you thought would happen is happening.

Rastetter averages 43.6 per punt. He’d be No. 2 in the Big Ten this week, but he doesn’t have enough punts. Iowa’s offense has been too good on third down, so the Iowa punter is having a hard time making it into the league’s official stats.

Rastetter averages just 3.0 punts a game (that’s in the 100s nationally). Punters need to average 3.6 punts a game.

No one Iowa is complaining about this.

“Clearly at that position last year, nobody took the reins,” Ferentz said. “But to his credit, he has taken the reins.

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“To me, that’s college football. That’s why it’s so hard to predict what teams are going to be good, all those types of things. If a guy ends up coming through, playing well, you got a chance to maybe have a good team. I think that was one of our biggest wild cards coming into the season, was the punting.”

When the head coach says that, the special teams coordinator already has heard it.

It is time to credit Iowa special teams coordinator LeVar Woods for seeing something not a lot of other people could.

Not only did Woods have Rastetter’s back, he doubled down. Challenged on the punting position during a news conference last spring, Woods, a former Hawkeye and NFL linebacker, attacked.

“Our mantra, our thought is always develop people,” Woods said. “That’s first and foremost. ... To blow a guy up or blow up a position, that doesn’t make any sense to me or to us. That’s not our philosophy. We’re trying to develop the people first and then as players and see what we have.”

For Rastetter, that included visits with a sports psychologist. Ferentz didn’t suggest this. All Iowa athletes have a sports psychologist available. Rastetter gave it a shot.

“She picked my brain and got into the way I think,” Rastetter said. “When we first met, she asked what my game reps were like and how my mentality was going into game reps. She worked off that. It slows the game down in a way.”

Don’t let that obscure the fact this turnaround took a lot of hard labor. Rastetter settled in on being a two-step jab punter, and that footwork is everything for the position.

It’s more than perseverance. Rastetter was trying to shed the skin of 2017.

“I think he’s been very, very diligent how he goes about his work right now,” Woods said. “I think he was embarrassed from last year. He’ll tell you that, personally embarrassed. And I think he’s taken it upon himself to really be diligent and work hard at what he’s doing and be better at his craft.”

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Iowa’s punt unit has become really pretty tactical. Rastetter can punt any way you want it. He worked on his two-step jab. The junior learned how to be a rugby punter. Don’t ask for a pattern on when and why Iowa goes to the rugby punt, just know Rastetter is perfectly comfortable with it.

Sometimes, it even looks like he might run with it.

“We’ll see if Coach Ferentz calls it,” Rastetter said with a laugh.

Iowa’s varying punt formations help defuse returns and that, in turn, is another weapon Iowa can rely on in the battle of field position. The Hawkeyes are able to get more defenders downfield quickly when Rastetter buys some time for the unit with the jog the rugby punt demands.

But it sure does look like Rastetter is counting on a forward roll with every punt. Being able to punt out of different styles, maybe it’s made him a bit of a knuckleballer.

“When you’re rolling out, you’re hitting more the top of the ball,” Rastetter said. “It creates a forward rotation. When it hits, it spikes up, checks up instead of checking back.

“I don’t know where I developed it from, but it rolls forward. It works out.”

Maybe there is some voodoo magic foot to this. Whatever works.

Last week against Maryland, both teams had to deal with a 25 mph wind out of the north. Rastetter had to punt into the teeth of it in the fourth quarter. Woods asked him to punt across the field. Rastetter delivered a 48-yard knuckler that pinned Maryland at its 6. His other punt was a 45-yarder that was downed at UM’s 10.

Just two punts in a 23-0 victory with a big wind. That’s not enough for a full measure, but if this were last season, Rastetter probably wasn’t in the circle of trust enough to be allowed to even try that.

“I can’t prove it, but I sure would have been more nervous last year,” Ferentz said. “I wasn’t nervous at all Saturday. I felt like we were going to be OK. He has a maturity now he didn’t have last year. That comes through a lot of hard work, sometimes tribulation. Tough, but you have to go through it.”

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

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