IOWA CITY — In terms of raw numbers, you had to feel going into the 2018 offseason that Iowa punter would get a good look over.
The rawest number is 114th in the country with a 38.6-yard average (13th in the Big Ten). The 35.8 number in November was No. 123 in the country. The 37.4 Iowa averaged at home was 124th. The Hawkeyes did average 42.5 yards per punt in five games against ranked opponents. Never mind the 1-4 record in those games, the punting worked.
And that’s why LeVar Woods, beginning his first season as Iowa’s full-fledged special teams coordinator, didn’t blow up punter after the offseason.
The Iowa staff didn’t recruit a punter. Sophomore Ryan Gersonde and junior Colten Rastetter remain the two options. They will be Iowa punting 2018. If Iowa is shopping in the graduate-transfer market, Woods didn’t show that hand Friday.
“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.”
In fact, Woods immediately challenged the questioner, asking to review Rastetter’s punts during the Ohio State game.
Why the Ohio State game? It ended up being kind of a “hold my beer while I try to jump 20 school buses” season for Rastetter, who won the job out of camp last fall competing with Gersonde, who at the time was a true freshman.
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Against the Buckeyes, Rastetter, who became almost exclusively a rugby-style punter late last season, averaged 39 yards on two punts. He also called a fake punt.
At Iowa’s 15, Rastetter took the snap, tucked the ball in and ran to his left for a gain of 7 yards on fourth-and-9. ESPN cameras caught Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz having a conversation with Rastetter after the play.
Iowa more than landed the plane against the Buckeyes. It was all good.
“I’ll just say two things,” Ferentz said through a grin in the postgame. “It ain’t in our playbook, OK? If the play is not in our playbook, then I didn’t call it, so I’ll let you connect the dots. I normally don’t throw players under the bus, right? I did call the fake-out in the Orange Bowl where it was wild kingdom, but that was a little different situation. I guess this is the same one. But if I call it, it’s OK. If somebody else calls it, not so good.”
(That’s as “New Kirk” as it gets.)
Rastetter showed up for the postgame and owned up. He also completed the “polecat” pass to long snapper Tyler Kluver that resulted in a TD. Between the polecat and the momentous Iowa victory over the Buckeyes, bygones were bygones then and remain so now.
“Do I trust Colten? Yes, I trust him,” Woods said. “People do silly things, right? You correct and you move forward.”
You kind of know what you’re going to get out of Rastetter. He’s the rugby punter who also can do traditional punting. He also showed last season that he’s a good athlete, completing two passes on special teams fakes. If you can get 39 yards and no return out of rugby punt, teams can live on that. With 50 or 60 yards in front of him, that totally can work.
It’s hard to say exactly what Iowa has with Gersonde. He’ll be a sophomore in 2018. He was born in Milwaukee, Wis., and moved to Australia for most of his childhood before moving back to Milwaukee before high school.
Last season, Gersonde punted 15 times and averaged an impressive 42.4 per attempt. He certainly got everyone’s attention with a 52.6 average on five punts at Northwestern (and, no, that wasn’t a terribly windy game with speeds between 6 and 12 mph).
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But, at some point, Gersonde suffered an undisclosed injury and was shelved for the season. So, what does Iowa think it has in Gersonde this spring?
“I think Ryan has good upside, he’s also inconsistent and young,” Woods said. “He’s been working through what style of punter he really wants to be. He’s got a couple of different styles. He needs to settle in at one and be effective at it. I like his upside, I think he’s been working hard. You have to work through freshmen things with guys, but he’s been working well. I think he has a strong leg, but being consistent over and over.”
Styles of punting?
“Does he want to be a two-step punter or is he going to be a jab, two-step punter?” Woods said. “All the mechanics that go in, it’s not all that different from quarterback.
“We film everything, we evaluate everything. The entire group sits in the meetings and it’s probably painstaking for them, but it’s important to me they all know what each position does. They should know each other inside and out. We evaluate, critique and correct. That’s what he’s been focused on this spring.”
And this spring, it looks like Iowa is committed to a two-man punter committee between Rastetter and Gersonde. Inside the opponent’s 50-yard line, it’ll probably be a Rastetter rugby rumbler (the bouncing ball dictates where the receiving team has to take the ball and forces the returner to decide if it’s worth fielding a grounder). Beyond 50, it sets up for Gersonde to fire away.
“Colten showed last year, he can be a pretty decent rugby punter,” Woods said. “When he’s consistent, he also can be a traditional punter. Ryan is a very good traditional punter and also has the capability to be an excellent plus-50 punter.”
The microscope is focused on Iowa punter 2018. If nothing else, the 2017 season was a study in how important field position can be for the Hawkeyes. The punter isn’t the only one who has a say in that number, but it’s obviously a crucial element to the position.
“It’s critical we improve, it’s very critical we improve in that area,” Woods said. “... I think the guys have the potential to do the job. It’s just a matter of buckling down and doing it and seeing where it shakes out.”
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