Iowa Football

Iowa special teams being special has become a regular thing

Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Charlie Jones (16) scores a touchdown in the second quarter at an Iowa Hawkeyes football gam
Iowa Hawkeyes wide receiver Charlie Jones (16) scores a touchdown in the second quarter at an Iowa Hawkeyes football game with the Michigan State Spartans at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

When the NCAA allowed college football programs the opportunity to hire an extra full-time assistant coach for the 2018 season, Iowa did so, then moved LeVar Woods from coaching tight ends to working exclusively with the special teams.

It was a great decision because the Hawkeyes’ special teams have been, well, pretty special.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette led the Big Ten Conference and was fourth nationally last season in kickoff returns. Charlie Jones has been an igniter at punt return this season, running one back 54 yards for a touchdown last week in a win over Michigan State.

Keith Duncan was an All-American last season who many felt got snubbed for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. Australian true freshman Tory Taylor has been an absolute revelation this season as a punter, showing off big-time leg strength and finesse that has led to opponents having to start deep in their own territory on a regular basis.

Give Woods a lot of credit for that.

“I would share my history in college football is that over time that group gets neglected a little bit, the ‘specialists,’ the guys that are specialists: the snappers, kickers, punters,” said Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz, whose team plays Friday night at Minnesota (6:05 kickoff, FS1). “They kind of float a little bit and don’t have that constant guidance like the rest of the players on your team. So that made sense (to have a full-time special teams coach), and I think that’s made a huge difference, quite frankly.

“LeVar’s had a tremendous impact on those guys just from the psychological and mental standpoint. They’re being coached daily by a coach, their coach. I think that’s been good, and that coach’s focus is on that, as well as the supporting cast.”

Not every program has a special teams coach. As Ferentz pointed out, in the past, one assistant coach would coach a position or be a coordinator and also handle one aspect of special teams.

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But Ferentz said every NFL team has a special teams coach for a reason, and that was why he made the decision to do what he did with Woods. He said having Kevin Spencer, a former NFL special teams coach, as a consultant for the program and a mentor for Woods also was important.

“If you look at any of our good teams, we have played well on special teams,” Ferentz said. “I think it’s important for any football team, certainly for us. It’s historically ... an area we have to try to excel in. And one thing about it, it’s a great opportunity for players that maybe aren’t starters or maybe aren’t that experienced to get in and really do a good job.

“We’re seeing a lot of that already. Think about a guy like Terry Roberts, first guy that comes to mind. He’s not a starter for us on defense, but he’s really playing great on special teams and just doing more than his share to be a good football player. A guy like Nick Anderson, go right down the list, we’ve got a lot of guys that are doing a good job and have really bought into it, and it’s a good opportunity for them to go out and contribute to our team’s success.”

Quick Slants

— Iowa players are excited to have Smith-Marsette back. Smith-Marsette missed last week’s game against Michigan State after being arrested during a traffic stop Nov. 1 for suspicion of DUI.

“Honestly, everybody makes mistakes, and all we have to do is get back on the train and get ready to compete again,” said fellow receiver Brandon Smith. “We learn from it, put it behind us, and we’re just going to keep the train rolling.”

“He was the first one to own up to it that he did make a mistake,” said quarterback Spencer Petras. “He showed up at practice every day working hard, he’s back with the team. I know that he knows that he messed up, you can tell he knows he messed up. Everyone makes mistakes. We’re just happy to have him back playing with us.”

— Kickoff for the Nov. 27 game between Iowa and Nebraska at Kinnick Stadium has been set for noon. It will be televised by Fox.

The Big Ten Conference will set kickoff times for next week’s games after results of this week’s. Iowa plays next Saturday (Nov. 20) at Penn State.

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— Ferentz said both middle linebacker Jack Campbell and defensive tackle Austin Schulte have begun practicing with the team after missing time with an illness (Campbell had mononucleosis) and injury (Schulte). Both were expected to be starters going into the season.

“I don’t know how much (Schulte) will play, but he’ll be available to play at least on Friday, and he’s a good veteran leader for us,” Ferentz said. “And then Jack Campbell, a little younger player, he hasn’t been able to play yet this year, but he’ll return. We’ll be careful how much we work him and play him, but it will be good to get him back in the rotation at least at linebacker.”

— Ferentz also said the Floyd Of Rosedale trophy awarded to the winner of the Iowa-Minnesota game each season has been moved from the trophy case at the football complex to the weight room. Call that motivation.

“For me personally, I’m not pushing the trophy thing to the back (this season) at all,” said Iowa offensive lineman Mark Kallenberger. “This is a trophy game, a very competitive game. We’re going up to Minnesota to play the Gophers, and they are going to bring it to us. I know they want that trophy back ... We’re always looking at it. We don’t want that to be taken away from our building. We want to keep that in Iowa City.”

Comments: (319) 398-8259; jeff.johnson@thegazette.com

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