AMES — The list of Iowa State’s NFL prospects has grown since Matt Campbell arrived.
Defensive linemen Ray Lima and JaQuan Bailey each have a chance to get drafted next spring, as do offensive lineman Josh Knipfel and linebacker Marcel Spears.
One player the Iowa State coaching staff is really high on in terms of having a future in the NFL is long snapper Steven Wirtel.
Wirtel, a senior from Orland Park, Kan., was the No. 6 long snapping prospect in the country as a recruit and chose Iowa State over Georgia and Illinois.
His brother John Wirtel was the long snapper at Kansas from 2014-18 and is now long snapping with the Chicago Bears.
“Going through the recruiting process is when I realized I could be a professional,” Steven said. “I was ranked up there pretty high. Then when I got here I realized if I just keep doing what I’m doing, I have a real future in this. I saw my brother go through that process and he’s now with the Chicago Bears snapping for them. That opened my eyes and I’ve had a lot of good conversations with him over this last offseason.
“Seeing what the future can hold has been something that’s been really exciting for me.”
Wirtel honed his craft by working on extra-point and field-goal snaps in the offseason. He wanted to deliver the ball with perfect laces, so the holder wouldn’t even have to spin the ball in order for the laces to be out for the kicker.
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“One of the biggest things I did was taking my legs out of it on the short snaps and that got my accuracy better and the perfect laces came with it, too,” Wirtel said. “This fall camp, the improvements have been noticeable.”
Kicker Connor Assalley was the beneficiary of Wirtel’s superb snaps last season. Assalley was consistent from 20-45 yards, hitting on 14 of 17. But from 46-50, Assalley was just 2 for 6. He spent the offseason working on his strength and flexibility to try to increase his range.
This season, Assalley said he’d feel comfortable with anything inside of 53 yards.
Another change for Wirtel was out of his control: He has a new punter to snap to. Iowa State’s starter last season, Corey Dunn, tore his Achilles in the offseason.
Dunn is a right-footed punter and backup Joe Rivera is a left-footed punter. Rivera had two punts last season, each against Drake. One was a 46-yard boot and the other went 30 yards. Rivera said being consistent is the most important thing for him this season, and having Wirtel delivering accurate, consistent balls will help him.
“I have to focus on his left hip instead, but he’s been great to work with,” Wirtel said. “It’s been really easy to adapt to him.”
Wirtel and Rivera already have chemistry, thanks to Rivera being the holder last season for field goals and extra points.
Wirtel, a first-team all-Big 12 selection is more than just a snapper. At 6-foot-4 and 235 pounds, he isn’t afraid to mix it up inside and help with protection. He’s willing to help on punt coverage, too — he has at least one tackle every season so far.
“The best thing about our special teams in general is, No. 1 our long snapper is back, which is the most important piece of the puzzle,” Campbell said.
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Iowa State also brings back second-team all-Big 12 returner Kene Nwangwu, who is a running back when he’s not returning kicks. Nwangwu led the Big 12 and was 12th nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 27 yards on 24 returns. He had three returns of at least 40 yards.
Punt returns will be handled by either senior receiver Deshaunte Jones or redshirt sophomore receiver Tarique Milton.
Milton was the punt returner last season and averaged 12.7 yards per return with a season long of 47 yards as a redshirt freshman.
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