IOWA CITY — No, LeVar Woods isn’t on the internet all day looking for trick special teams plays.
That comes later, during game week preparation. And it’s not so much which trick play as much as it’s what weaknesses Woods and staff see in the opponents’ special teams.
“We’re constantly trying to find advantages and chinks in the armor, if you will, of our opponents,” Iowa’s special teams coordinator said Friday. “ ... We’re constantly, constantly trying to find holes in what they’re doing.”
What’s it like when you do see one?
“That’s pretty fun,” Woods said. “Then, the real work starts and the stress starts. You have to go back and look and see ‘Is it really there?’ Over and over and over and over. But when we find it, it’s pretty, pretty good.”
The trick plays, obviously, get your attention. During Woods’ two seasons as special teams coordinator, the Hawkeyes have pulled off some doozies. In 2017, punter Colten Rastetter threw a pass to defensive end A.J. Epenesa on a fake field goal at Michigan State. Of course, you remember the “Polecat” against Ohio State. Rastetter — punter, holder and special teams quarterback — lofted a pass to long snapper Tyler Kluver on a fake field goal. It led to an Iowa TD.
Last season, the sideways snap from Jackson Subbert to tight end T.J. Hockenson stole the show. Subbert snapped the ball left handed and sideways, basically pitching it to Hockenson, who scored on a 4-yard run. At Penn State, Rastetter completed a 10-yard TD pass to defensive tackle Sam Brincks on a fourth-and-goal from the 10.
And there was that one that didn’t work. Against Nebraska. You remember it. It kept the Huskers in the game way longer than they should’ve been in it, but Iowa finally prevailed on a field goal as time expired.
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“I feel like when we’re working trick plays or trying to gain an edge on somebody, it’s usually we find something in them that they’re not fundamentally sound in,” Woods said. “We’re not spending spring football trying to design fake plays. We’re just looking for different ways we can find an edge on somebody.”
Iowa’s special teams has gained the edge of unpredictability during Woods’ first two years in the job.
This year, predictability in performance will help the Hawkeyes sort out a few special teams needs.
The Hawkeyes need a kicker. Miguel Recinos kicked 17 field goals last season, most for an Iowa kicker since Mike Meyer made 17 in 2012. The candidates to replace him are juniors Caleb Shudak and Keith Duncan and, when he shows up in August, freshman walk-on Lucas Amaya.
You remember Duncan. He kicked the 33-yard game-winner against No. 3 Michigan in 2016. Yes, it’s been a long two years since.
“If Keith were honest and I’ll tell you as his coach, there was a time when that probably did affect him mentally,” Woods said. “He won the game and everyone loved Keith Duncan and then all of the sudden he wasn’t the starting kicker. There was a point where he was wavering a little bit and wasn’t quite where he needed to be.”
Duncan spoke to media earlier this spring. He’s in this to win this.
“Every year is a competition,” Duncan said. “When I was a freshman, there were five or six kickers here. That was a confidence boost. I came out on top in that competition. I knew I had the ability. Every year, you know it’s going to be a tight competition and the coaches will give you a fair opportunity.”
Punter came up. As you can imagine.
It’s a different ride now, with Arizona State grad transfer Michael Sleep-Dalton en route. Sleep-Dalton was fourth in the Pac-12 last season with a 43.8 average. Rastetter was 10th in the Big Ten at 38.9. Sophomore Ryan Gersonde also is on scholarship and vying for the position.
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Iowa athletics does have a small sports psychology staff. Rastetter and Gersonde spent time going over performance ideas with them during the offseason. Sports psychology helped turn Recinos into a two-year starter, Woods said.
“I think both of them (Rastetter and Gersonde) are in a different place,” Woods said.
On Sleep-Dalton, who’ll be on campus in June, “He definitely has a strong leg. He has different abilities in that he can punt with both legs in either direction. He can rollout punt. He can spiral punt. He has a bunch of different shots in the bag,” Woods said.
And then to wrap it up on punter, “The job is wide open and all three are required to know that.”
Kick return will be wide receiver Ihmir Smith-Marsette. He was the Big Ten's return specialist of the year last season, leading the conference with 29.5 yards per return.
Punt return is up in the air. Smith-Marsette is getting a look, along with safeties Geno Stone and Devonte Young, cornerback Terry Roberts and wide receiver Nico Ragaini.
Special teams captain is a thing for the Hawkeyes. Amani Jones is transitioning from linebacker to defensive end, in some way, shape or form, but he’s been a special teams standout and could fill the captain role this season.
“He’s an old-school football player, a guy who all he wants to do is play football,” Woods said. “He’s physical, he’s fast, he’s explosive. ... He could really turn the game in special teams. He’s a guy who has truly bought into it.”
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