AMES — Iowa State’s special teams weren’t always so special in 2019.
One of the lasting images of last season was Datrone Young running face-first into Deshaunte Jones on a punt return against Iowa late in the fourth quarter. The Cyclones muffed the punt and the play sealed the victory for the Hawkeyes.
Iowa State did have its bright spots on special teams. Kene Nwangwu, who will be a senior in 2020, was once again one of the top kick returners in the Big 12 — his average of 25.2 yards per return was second in the conference.
The other bright spot was backup punter Joe Rivera, who filled in admirably for Corey Dunn. The punter in 2018, Dunn missed all of last season with a torn Achilles.
Rivera averaged 40.6 yards per punt and landed 27 inside the 20. As a comparison, Dunn averaged 40.3 yards per punt in 2018 and downed 23 inside the 20. The difference between the two is Dunn had three punts over 60 yards while Rivera had just one. Those two seniors will likely be in a battle for the starting punter position in the fall.
ISU Coach Matt Campbell constantly talks about how all three phases of the game are equally important. While special teams see the field the least, they determine where the offense and defense are placed on the field. Which, in large part, helps determine their success.
It’s no secret he wants better and more consistent special teams play in 2020.
But that might be difficult because long snapper Steven Wirtel has graduated and is off to pursue his NFL dream.
Iowa State’s staff brought in Koby Hathcock, a long snapper from Mesa, Ariz., to try to fill Wirtel’s shoes.
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The Cyclones also may have a new kicker booting Hathcock’s snaps. Campbell added Liberty transfer Alex Probert after losing Brayden Narveson to the transfer portal.
Iowa State still has kicker Connor Assalley, but he has been inconsistent past 30 yards because he doesn’t have the strongest leg.
Assalley is just 15 of 26 between 30 and 49 yards and has only attempted one 50-plus yarder in his career, which he made in the 2018 season.
His value is within 30 yards, where he hasn’t missed a field goal.
Narveson was Iowa State’s distance kicker last season after Assalley struggled and now Probert seems to be the heir apparent to the distance kicking duties.
Probert has made a 50-yard field goal each of the last two seasons and was 4 of 5 from 30-39 yards and 4 of the 8 from 40-49 yards.
Probert likely also will take over kickoff duties for an Iowa State team that was among the best in Big 12. Iowa State only had 12 touchbacks last season, but Campbell said in the offseason that was, in part, by design because the coverage team was so good, allowing teams an average of 18.3 yards per return.
Now for the elephant in the room — Iowa State’s punt return.
Punt return duties should once again be handled by Tarique Milton. Iowa State and Milton fair caught — or at least attempted to fair catch — most of their opportunities last season.
But when he did return punts, he found success, averaging 11.6 yards with a long of 36 yards.
The Cyclones return most of their key special teams pieces for 2020 but they’ll need to take another step up and a step toward consistency if they’ll contribute how Campbell envisions them.