Iowa Football

Iowa looks to improve punting with Arizona State grad transfer

Iowa adds 3 to 2019 signing class; Ferentz hopes defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon stays at Iowa

Arizona State punter Michael Sleep-Dalton transferred to Iowa and is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer. (USA TODAY Sports)
Arizona State punter Michael Sleep-Dalton transferred to Iowa and is eligible immediately as a graduate transfer. (USA TODAY Sports)

IOWA CITY — Here’s why Iowa was in the market for a punter in this round of signings: the end of the Outback Bowl.

Holding a 27-22 lead with about 2 1/2 minutes left, the Hawkeyes were forced to punt. Colten Rastetter’s effort was terrific, too. Iowa’s drive stalled at its 24, and Rastetter booted a 45-yarder that forced Mississippi State to start its final drive from the Bulldogs’ 31.

The 45 yards was terrific, but when you’re winning by five points with two minutes left, every yard matters. It could’ve been better, and that was the story for Iowa punting in 2018.

Rastetter’s 38.9-yard average was 10th in the Big Ten. His 37.8 average in 2017 was 14th in the league. More goes into the measure of a punt than pure yards — hang time, placement, field position — but this is where field position leaks, putting pressure on the defense to hold up its end of the bargain.

In the Outback Bowl, Mississippi State marched to the Hawkeyes’ 32. On a fourth-and-5, safety Jake Gervase batted away a pass and Iowa hung on to win.

You’ll take the 45-yarder, but a clutch 50-plus punt would’ve come in handy in this situation.

The national signing period began Wednesday with the Hawkeyes landing punter Michael Sleep-Dalton, a graduate transfer from Arizona State, and a pair of preps in cornerback Jermari Harris and defensive end Taajhir McCall.

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And that was it. For the Hawkeyes, it was basically the 14th round of fantasy football draft. Find a punter and some prospects.

Rastetter still is in the race, along with sophomore Ryan Gersonde, who took a redshirt last season. But Iowa clearly wanted more octane out of the position.

“The biggest thing is being able to come through when you need them to come through,” Ferentz said Wednesday. “ ... That’s what you’re hoping for with any player. When you need it, you hope they come through.”

So yes, Iowa has two scholarship punters (Gersonde and Sleep-Dalton) and a punting battle for this spring and into the fall.

You have to like and maybe love Sleep-Dalton’s chance in this. First, you don’t scholarship a graduate transfer to come in and watch. Second, Sleep-Dalton averaged 43.8 yards per punt last season (59 punts), that was good enough for fourth in the Pac-12. Also last year, Sleep-Dalton had 10 punts of 50-plus yards. Rastetter had four. In four November games, Rastetter averaged 35.4 yards a punt.

“Whoever wins the job, I think the goal is consistency,” Ferentz said. “That’s what we’re asking for and hoping for at every position, consistency. We did some really good things in the punting game this year, but we also had some that made it a bigger challenge for us defensively and as a team.

“If we can gain an edge, that’s great. But I think the thing we’re hoping for from all of our players is a consistent level of performance.”

The Hawkeyes’ four early entries into the NFL Draft affected this recruiting cycle, of course. Iowa is losing tight ends Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson, so in December the Hawkeyes signed three tight ends. McCall is an answer to Anthony Nelson’s early exit. Iowa had a list of four defensive backs to fill Amani Hooker’s scholarship, and Harris, a 6-1, 175-pounder from Montini Catholic (Chicago, Ill.), snagged the offer.

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As a senior, Harris finished with 72 tackles, eight interceptions, five pass breakups and two forced fumbles. Harris had 10 offers, including Northern Illinois, Ball State and North Dakota State.

McCall, a 6-4, 225-pounder from Pine Forest High School (Pensacola, Fla.), was deciding between Army and Navy before the Hawkeyes offered three days ago. McCall committed to Iowa on Wednesday morning. He had six offers.

McCall is the third Florida prep to sign with the Hawkeyes in 2019, joining defensive back Dane Belton (Tampa) and linebacker Yahweh Jeudy (Pompano Beach). That’s the most signees Iowa has had from Florida since 2008.

Add running backs Shadrick Byrd (Alabama) and Tyler Goodson (Georgia) and the Hawkeyes’ 2019 class does have a distinct southeastern presence.

Ferentz credited running backs coach Derrick Foster, an Alabama native, wide receivers coach Kelton Copeland, a Florida native, and defensive ends coach Kelvin Bell, who’s from Mississippi.

The term Ferentz used was “natural access.”

“I think that helps,” Ferentz said. “We’ll try to go where it makes sense for us.”

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No news to report on defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon. He sat out last season due to academics and has entered his name into the transfer portal. Nixon signed with Iowa in 2017. Academics sent him to Iowa Western. Nixon returned to Iowa City last fall.

“We’re still hoping he’ll be on our football team here,” Ferentz said. “That’s our goal and our hopes.”

Iowa also announced 11 walk-ons for next fall. This group included four eastern Iowas: Cedar Rapids Xavier defensive back Quinn Schulte, West Liberty D-lineman Spencer Daufeldt, East Buchanan offensive lineman Taylor Fox and Williamsburg O-lineman Clayton Thurm.

— No specific dates have been set, but Iowa will begin spring practice on the last week of March and will hold a spring “event” on the last week of April.

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

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