Iowa Football

Iowa 2020 depth chart projections: Special teams came right at foes in 2019 and will again in 2020

Kicker Keith Duncan is a good place to start; Ihmir Smith-Marsette the kick returner is a good place to finish

Iowa Hawkeyes place kicker Keith Duncan (3) is congratulated after successfully kicking a point after touchdown during t
Iowa Hawkeyes place kicker Keith Duncan (3) is congratulated after successfully kicking a point after touchdown during the second half of 2019 Holiday Bowl against the USC Trojans at SDCCU Stadium in San Diego, Calif., on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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In 2017, Iowa special teams pulled out the “Pole Cat,” where the center lined up uncovered as an eligible receiver and caught a pass on a fake field goal to set up a TD against Ohio State.

Defensive end A.J. Epenesa caught a pass on a fake field goal that season. In 2018, defensive tackle Sam Brincks caught a TD pass off a fake field goal. In 2018, the Hawkeyes wanted to keep their “Herky” fake a secret, so long snapper Jackson Subbert and tight end T.J. Hockenson practiced a sideways snap in the TCF Bank Stadium locker room before actually unfurling a 4-yard TD run off Subbert’s sideways snap to Hockenson.

In 2019, everyone was ready for the chicanery. Suddenly, all of Iowa’s opponents knew the rules. Who was uncovered, who wasn’t. After two years of pirating free cable from Big Ten special teams units, special teams coordinator LeVar Woods played it straight. That worked, too.

Iowa kicked field goals.

Keith Duncan emerged two years after losing the placekicking job and tied for the nation’s lead with 29 made field goals, including two that held up for game-winning points (two biggies for Iowa — Iowa State and Nebraska). Duncan lost out in the Lou Groza Award voting to Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship. The Groza Award is based in Florida and just couldn’t see past the regionalism.

Iowa returned kicks.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette didn’t repeat as the Big Ten’s return specialist of the year. He did his damage in November and in the bowl game, way after the voting for these awards is over (award voting begins in early November and, yes, that does make them kind of hollow, it’s sportwriters/broadcasters picking the dudes with the best stats, pure and simple).

Smith-Marsette returned kicks for TDs against Nebraska and in the Holiday Bowl against USC. Iowa’s offense averaged just 25.8 points a game (ninth in the Big Ten), so points like these mattered.

Iowa covered kicks.

The Hawkeyes finished fourth in the Big Ten, allowing 17.2 yards per kick return. Again, the invisible yards really count when you average 25.8 points a game and still win 10 games. Iowa has been terrific in kick coverage the last three seasons, ranking in the top three in the league with 17.2 being the high-water mark.

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So, Iowa went basic in special teams in 2019 and you can honestly say Iowa won the special teams battle in most games.

Kicker

Keith Duncan (sr.) — Incredible fortitude, incredible support system, a strong belief in God and for sure a huge jump in leg strength and confidence. You can’t say enough good things about Duncan’s 2019, which included a 14-of-18 mark on attempts from 40-plus yards.

When he first started showing up in 2016, coming in as a walk-on from Weddington, N.C., he was a true freshman. The 5-10, 180-pound Duncan looked like he weighed 160 pounds in his pads. Honestly, during those first few Kids Days, there was a difference between Duncan’s and Miguel Recinos’ 40-yard field goals. Duncan was accurate, but there wasn’t a ton of room to spare. Recinos was accurate and his kicks would keep sailing deep into the south end zone bleachers. Fast forward two years, Duncan’s kicks do that.

Duncan’s 29 field goals were school and Big Ten records (sixth in NCAA history).

 

You know everything Duncan did last year, which was everything a kicker could do except win the Groza Award. Let’s switch the discussion to how much head coach Kirk Ferentz values kicker. (And before you read this as an indictment, it’s not, just an honest examination).

Duncan didn’t get a scholarship offer until his 48-yarder left Nebraska needing the old kickoff lateral deal with one second left. There were talks before that, but the Iowa program generally doesn’t offer kickers scholarships at the beginning of their careers.

You probably enjoyed Nate Kaeding and Kyle Schlicher. Kaeding won the Groza Award (SEC must not have had a contender that year). Schlicher picked up the mantle and ran with it. Remember the 2004 game at Minnesota, when the Gophers outrushed the Hawkeyes 337 to 6? Schlicher hit five field goals in that game, including a 49-yarder that ended up being the winning points.

They came to Iowa with scholarships in their pockets. They probably can thank Dan McCarney for Iowa’s offer. When the former Iowa State head coach offered then-Iowa City West star Kaeding, Iowa followed. Iowa and ISU also offered Schlicher.

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$5 if you can guess the next kicker Iowa brought in on scholarship. Time’s up. It was Mick Ellis in 2014. He was eventually beaten out by Solon walk-on Marshall Koehn.

Since Schlicher left in 2006, Iowa kicker has gone walk-on — former Iowa City Regina prep Daniel Murray (2007-09), former Dubuque Wahlert prep Mike Meyer (2010-13), Koehn (2014-15), Duncan (2016), Recinos (2017-18) and then Duncan again.

Generally, I get this. Ferentz wants specialists to prove their value and then reward them. It’s worked. Scholarships are sometimes tricky for specialists, but I’m pretty sure all of these kickers ended up on scholarship (not sure on Murray, Meyer after 2010, Koehn before 2015, not sure on Recinos and Duncan last year).

The only thing is how do you know when you’re passing up a sure thing? How do you know when you’re going to need a an assassin-type season from your kicker like Duncan put up last season?

Like a lot of things with the KF program, it’s case by case. Iowa has offered kickers and not gotten them. So, no clear rule of thumb, except that the kicker after Duncan probably will be a walk-on who has to earn it.

A foot in the door — sigh, pardon the pun, seriously not on purpose — is a good thing. Look what Duncan did with it.

Next kicker in

A lot of you dig Ferentz because he does things like come through on a four-year scholarship offer for a prospect who suffers a serious neck injury two weeks after committing to the Hawkeyes.

I’m going to put Ferentz’s comments on kickoff specialist Caleb Shudak in this category. Shudak’s name appeared in the NCAA transfer portal sometime during the season. It wasn’t anything contentious. Ferentz has said a bunch of times the decision to go with Duncan over Shudak was a coin flip. Both had solid springs and summers. Both put in the work. There wasn’t a ton of difference in their numbers.

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Duncan’s 2019 took off, and Shudak, who’ll also be a senior this year, wanted to run his own shop. Makes total sense. If we’re giving QBs hall passes on transfer, kickers certain deserve the same consideration. Like “Highlander,” there can be only one. So, as last season became next season, the question came up. Ferentz said he’d do anything he could to keep Shudak around, knowing that Shudak could find his own shop at any time. Shudak was listed with a scholarship going into spring, so maybe something already has happened.

Shudak finished 2019 with 31 touchbacks and the Hawkeyes finished fourth in the Big Ten with 17.2 yards per return. I don’t see Woods messing around much with kicker. Redshirt freshman Lucas Amaya and Aaron Blom, an incoming walk-on freshman from Oskaloosa, are also around.

Punter

Tory Taylor (fr.) — You’re all going to laugh at this, but ... sigh, oh boy ... clearly Ferentz values punting.

OK, but seriously.

I’m not going all the way back to 1999 on the punter review. Specialist recruiting has really changed with the grad transfer solution and the portal. Let’s go back six years.

2015 — Dillon Kidd accepted a scholarship offer. He was a junior college recruit who was headed to Florida International. He accepted a scholarship from Iowa in early January.

2016 — Ron Coluzzi did the graduate transfer thing from Central Michigan. He won the job in camp and was awarded a scholarship.

2017 — Walk-on Colten Rastetter won the job. He averaged 37.8 yards a kick. Iowa brought Ryan Gersonde in with a scholarship. He averaged 42.3 yards on 13 punts and hasn’t punted for Iowa since. He suffered an injury and redshirted in 2018. He lost the 2019 season after suffering a torn ACL. Gersonde still is around and is in the competition for 2020.

2018 — Rastetter hung on to the job. He started strong, averaging 43.0 yards per punt in the first seven games of the season, but fell off dramatically (timing it badly with a three-game losing streak) and finished with a 38.9 average.

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2019 — Woods recruited Michael Sleep-Dalton as a grad transfer out of Arizona State. Yes, it was a scholarship deal from the beginning. Sleep-Dalton was fine, averaging 41.7 yards (10 plus-50 punts, 23 downed inside the 20 and 22 going for a fair catch).

Note: Gersonde lived in Australia, but was from Milwaukee. Sleep-Dalton officially put Iowa on the “Australian punter train.”

2020 — Speaking of Australian punters, Woods traveled to Australia to find Tory Taylor, who’ll come in as a true freshman with a tremendous opportunity.

That’s five scholarship punters in five years, with varying results. What I like about this grad transfer route with a punter is you’re getting someone who’s made their way through a career, which probably comes with some problem solving and adversity conquering. Experience is a good thing.

That brings us to Taylor and 2020.

So, what should you expect from Taylor? Well, good question. He’s big, standing 6-4 and weighing 225. He’s from Melbourne and went to Haileybury College for high school. He credits Prokick Australia for his progress.

I’m assuming the player Ferentz sent Woods to Australia to find will win the job. Ferentz said Gersonde will have a chance to compete, but there’s four years on the table with Taylor.

It’d be fun to sit down with Ferentz or Woods at some point to see how they vetted a recruitment that probably only included the one trip to Australia. How much can you know? How much can you find out? Does the ball spin the other way in the southern hemisphere?

Next punter in

Maybe Nick Phelps is the guy. He was a state champion shot putter at Woodbury Central High School, averaging 44.8 yards per punt with a long of 81 (!!!). He went to North Dakota State, was listed as the No. 2 punter for 2018 and then transferred to Iowa for the 2019 school year. This year, he’s walking on. Can’t say he doesn’t have a shot.

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This would be the “kid outta nowhere” story, even more so than having a punter from Australia. Like did Phelps run onto the field as a student in 2019 when the Hawkeyes beat Minnesota?

Kick returner

Ihmir Smith-Marsette (sr.) — If nothing else, Smith-Marsette’s 2019 in kick returns shows how hard it is to be consistently good at returning kicks.

With the fair catch rule now bringing the ball to the 25 even if the returner catches the ball inside the 20, there are fewer chances. There are fewer returnable kicks now, too. In 2012, the NCAA moved kickoffs from the 30 to the 35 and implemented the “touchbacks to the 25-yard line” rule.

 
 

There wasn’t a dramatic jump in touchbacks in the Big Ten, but some teams have stapled to the “boom it, jog down, first down at the 25” mentality. Last season, Wisconsin kicker Zach Hintze booted 69 of his 89 kickoffs out of the end zone. Wisconsin was No. 2 in the Big Ten allowing just 17.0 yards per kick return.

Smith-Marsette went into the 2019 season as the reigning Big Ten return specialist of the year. He had a resume and teams marked him up. You could see kicks where frustration came out for Smith-Marsette. He had three returns fall short of the 20. Iowa’s average field position in 2019 on a Smith-Marsette return was 24.6 yards. The best field position Iowa managed was the 50 against Michigan.

Of course, this is if you take out the two returns Iowa didn’t have to worry about. Before Smith-Marsette smoked Nebraska for a 95-yard TD, he had one return for 4 yards out to the Hawkeyes’ 21. Before the 98-yarder against USC in the Holiday Bowl, Smith-Marsette delivered field positions at the Iowa 25 and 28.

Smith-Marsette did end up again leading the Big Ten in kick returns (29.6 per return), but he had to come from behind to do it. Iowa’s kick return unit flipped a switch in November/December and Smith-Marsette again proved he’s one of the better special teams weapons in the Big Ten.

Next kick returning in

Total stab in the dark, so I’m going to go with what I’d like to see.

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It can’t have been an easy 2019 for running back Ivory Kelly-Martin. He lived in limbo for a bit and ended up doing the four-game redshirt thing. He will return to the Hawkeyes this fall as a junior. Kelly-Martin actually led the Hawkeyes in kick returns in 2017, when he was a true freshman, with 21.3 yards on 19 returns. Teams will avoid Smith-Marsette. They have to. This is a good spot to have some experience.

Punt returner

Max Cooper (sr.) — Let’s not overthink this too much. Let’s ask this: With question marks on defense, a new QB and a running game that hasn’t blown back anyone’s hair since maybe 2016, do you see Kirk Ferentz taking the punt return game into bold, new territory?

Me neither. But this isn’t a tag against the “fair catch factory” that refused to use Iowa defensive back and NFL-level punt returner Micah Hyde (90 NFL punt returns, 9.4 average, three TDs). I think Iowa ripped off that Band-Aid during Desmond King’s run in 2015-16, when he finished No. 2 and No. 3 in Big Ten punt returns. Hyde did most of his returns for Iowa teams that were less-than-standard (2011-12). That 2012 team was simply snake bit.

For the most part, when Iowa has a punt returner it likes, that returner gets some leeway.

You can flash to Kyle Groeneweg in 2018 (9.9 yards per, No. 2 in the Big Ten). In 2013, wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley was No. 2 in the league with 15.7 yards per return. In 2009-10, wide receiver Colin Sandeman was No. 2 and 3 in the league.

Cooper returned five punts at 3.4 yards per last season. As long as he catches the ball, that’s fine. In 2020, Iowa sets up as a team that will value a clean exchange of field position.

Next punt returner in It was only nine returns and he did lose the job past midseason, but wide receiver Nico Ragaini did average 10.7 yards on nine returns. He’s good, he can do it. I wonder if last year was just too big of a bite. Ragaini was Iowa’s most-targeted receiver in his first year as a starter. Throw punt return in there, and that’s a lot for a first-year.

Maybe Ragaini finds a comfort level in year 2. He can do this, he’s shown it.

Long snapper

Austin Spiewak (sr.)

Last year’s long snapper, Jackson Subbert, graduated. Last year’s No. 2 long snapper, Nate Vejvoda, graduated. So, by process of elimination, it’s Austin Spiewak. He’s the only other long snapper listed.

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Next long snapper in

Freshman Zach Kluver also is on the list. There are probably a few others. You can win a scholarship through performance. Who wants to dig for that gold? Someone does.

10 for the core

Here’s a list of Hawkeyes I expect to find time on one of the phases of special teams.

Seth Benson — My pick for potential special teams captain in 2020. Love how Benson showed up in the Holiday Bowl to hug Smith-Marsette after his TD return. Keep the love in the huddle and don’t let it get you 15 yards.

Logan Klemp — Third-year sophomore, it’s time. Iowa runs special teams drills that are basically 40 yards of blocking or trying to shed the block. Klemp has good size for something in the middle of a kick return.

Barrington Wade — Also a potential special teams captain. Size and range.

Sebastian Castro — You have to start somewhere and I probably don’t have enough safeties on this list.

Terry Roberts — If Devonte Young wouldn’t have recovered the fumble at Iowa State, Roberts would’ve.

Turner Pallissard/Johnny Plewa/Monte Pottebaum — Fullbacks are generally kick return middle backs. One of these dudes, maybe two, will be involved.

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Charlie Jones/Jack Combs — They transferred in last year. They’re going to be hungry.

Dallas Craddieth — Special teams to build confidence for other things. Here’s another safety body.

Dillon Doyle — Middle linebackers find a spot on kick return. Doyle has done this in the past.

Jestin Jacobs — During Christian Kirksey’s freshman year, he played 100 percent special teams. Not saying that’s the destiny for Jacobs, but I do want to see him play.

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

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