QUICK LOOK BACK: It was another uneven year for Iowa’s special teams. In 2010, special teams disasters contributed directly to losses at Arizona and against Wisconsin. Last season, Minnesota comes to mind, rather quickly.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz might still be talking about the onside kick the Gophers pulled in the fourth quarter that stole the fourth quarter and eventually the game from the Hawkeyes, 22-21.
It really needs no introduction, but if we must, the onside kick that Minnesota executed at the beginning of the fourth quarter really stole the Gophers a 22-21 victory over Iowa, their second consecutive over the Hawkeyes.
In a word, Ferentz called “shenanigans.”
“One of the biggest plays in our season, if you, quite frankly, want to know,” he said during Insight Bowl preparations. “You go back and look at it and look at the rule book, it was a bad break. As a result of that, it’s not going to come back, it’s not going to change any outcome, any‑‑ and I don’t expect‑‑ that’s part of football. As a coach, player, you deal with those things.
“The one thing I learned out of that situation, that needs to be a reviewable play and I will push for that in out‑of‑season.
“And I certainly don’t blame any parties involved there. That’s a play that is impossible to officiate. It’s too fast. It happens too quickly, too many bodies in there. That needs to be a reviewable play. I never even thought of that until that Sunday, that Sunday‑‑ Saturday evening watching it on tape. I learned something there. I’d advocate for that.
“That was a big play in our season certainly. That’s football, too, so you move on and just keep going.”
That basically says it all for Iowa special teams ’11.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Iowa is on the lookout for a new punter. Unlike last season when fifth-year senior Eric Guthrie waited in the wings, applications are still being sought.
Sophomore Jonny Mullings didn’t get a sniff last season while Guthrie, who had one career punt going into last season, took the job and ran with it, averaging 41.2 yards a punt. Mullings also wasn’t invited to fall camp. Backup quarterback John Wienke nudged his way in there.
This spring, the job is wide open. In the fall, true freshman Connor Kornbrath (6-7, 220) will join the race.
“John Wienke and Jonny Mullings competed for that position,” Ferentz said. “Both guys made improvement during the fall. So, we’ll go through 15 days, and somebody’s going to come out No. 1. And I think Conner’s going to have a chance to come in and compete. We’re all for it. It’s whatever’s best. That’s what it comes down to, but he’ll have an opportunity to compete in camp.
“That’s one that we probably won’t know until August. Can’t take that for granted.”
Junior kicker Mike Meyer tailed off at the end of 2011. After hitting 12 of his first 14 field goals, he made just 2 of 6 over Iowa’s last five games. The streak started after missing a 24-yarder against Minnesota, which was a one-point defeat.
“It’s easy to lose confidence,” said Meyer, who’s 28 of 37 (76 percent) in his two seasons. “Minnesota was that game. That game [confidence] might’ve dropped, but I think focus was part of it. I’ve been working on it a lot. That’s been the main thing I’ve been working on.”
Forget the Meyer from the Minnesota game. You want the Meyer who drilled 4 of 4 against Iowa State, including a career-best 50-yarder.
Will linebacker/tight end depth be enough to boost overall special teams? Linebackers Shane DiBona and Jim Poggi could help after injuries completely took away or severely dented their 2011 seasons. You could see as many as four tight ends in ST play next season. Senior Zach Derby and sophomore Ray Hamilton likely will be Nos. 2 and 3, but they also could fit nicely on a kickoff team. Also, Henry Krieger-Coble and Jake Duzey will be redshirt freshmen TEs. Anything they do on special teams will push them up the depth chart.
THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBRACTIONS: What a pleasant surprise Eric Guthrie was. He had one punt in his first three seasons and then came in as a fifth-year senior and did the job. He put 18 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with just four going for touchbacks. That’s comparable with Ryan Donahue, a four-year starter who punted for the Detroit Lions prior to an injury last season. Donahue’s best ratio was 27 inside the 20 with just five touchbacks as a junior in 2009. Guthrie also had six 50-plus yarders.
As far as subtractions go, Iowa will miss Jordan Bernstine, who handled kick returns and kept at least a few of those Guthrie punts from bouncing into the end zone for touchbacks. He finished 57th in the nation with 23.77 yards per return. Bernstine lacked the homerun vision that Derrell Johnson-Koulianos brought to the position, but he will be difficult to replace.
Running back Jordan Canzeri did return four kicks last season, so he won’t officially be a newcomer, but he’ll have a chance to have an impact on kick return. Ferentz also mentioned fellow sophomore running back Damon Bullock as a possibility.
Free safety John Lowdermilk made some plays as a true freshman in the special teams units last fall. Let’s go with Lowdermilk and linebacker Marcus Collins as potential special teams standouts in ’12. Collins was immediately put on special teams from Day 1 as a true freshman last season. Two new names to keep an eye on are defensive back Brian Kroll and Travis Perry.
SECOND TEAM — BATTLES BREWING: The kickoff duties will be contested. Meyer had just four touchbacks last season, fewest in the Big Ten, and he sent three kicks out of bounds, tied for second in the conference. Redshirt freshman Marshall Koehn, a walk-on from Solon, will probably do the pushing.
Don’t count out Meyer. As a true freshman, he had 15 touchbacks, which was good enough for third in the Big Ten. He has a leg. Plus, perhaps the biggest rule change in the offseason involves kickoff, with the kick moving up to the 35 from the 30. Also, senior Trent Mossbrucker could push through here maybe.
“We’ll let those guys compete,” Ferentz said. “Meyer goes in No. 1. We expect Trent to compete with him. Then Marshall Koehn,who redshirted last year, is capable of getting in the mix, too. We’ll take that probably right through the summer. Mike comes in as the No. 1 guy, but we’ll let them compete”
Could Kornbrath factor on kickoffs? Historically, Iowa co-special teams coach Lester Erb has divided duties, with the field goal kicker handling kickoff duties and a punter.
“What they’re telling me now is I’m going to looking at mostly punts and maybe kickoffs, but to keep my field goal skill up there,” Kornbrath said.
All the candidates at kicker and punter are on scholarship except for Koehn. That’s five scholarships for kicker, punter and, maybe, kickoff specialist.
You want a battle at punt return, but you’re probably not going to get it. Cornerback Micah Hyde wasn’t great in his first season returning punts, averaging 8.15 yards on 13 returns. That’s the lowest average for Iowa’s lead punt returner in the last five seasons (WR Andy Brodell was the high with 14.4 in 2007.
Micah Hyde will be No. 1 and then it’s Keenan [Davis, senior wide receiver],” Ferentz said.
Davis and wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley are in the mix on kick return with Bullock and Canzeri. When Ferentz spoke on the return game last week, the enduring thought was, “Maybe get a little more octane back there.”
FIRST DOWN — PREDICTIONS FOR 2012: Let’s take a 63-yard field goal at a depth chart:
Long snapper — Junior Casey Kreiter secured the job as a sophomore last season and will be there the next two. Don’t remember any mishaps.
Holder — Senior John Wienke begins his second season here. He took over for Ryan Donahue. Iowa special teams coaches Lester Erb and Darrell Wilson [I think TE coach Eric Johnson has a hand in ST, too] like to be able to lock up these positions and throw away the key.
Kickoff — The fact that kickoffs move to the 35 helps Meyer keep this job. Watch Koehn, though. In warmups before games last fall, he showed as strong of a leg as anyone.
FG, PAT — With a scholarship invested, Meyer should hang on. His 70 percent (14 of 20) last season is, however, tied for the low in the last five seasons (Daniel Murray also hit 70 percent in ’07, 7 of 10).
Punter — Maybe some of the biggest gambles in recruiting are punters and kickers. The camp scene is where they are made or broken. Iowa liked what it saw in Kornbrath and offered early last summer. Donahue took a redshirt in 2006. Kornbrath might not have that luxury. He will have the opportunity to win this in August.
Punt return — The thing to keep in mind with Hyde is what was he coached to do last season? He probably was told to stay away from a few punts. Look for him to assert himself as a senior in his second year at the position.
Kick return — Canzeri is octane. Wouldn’t be shocked to see a true freshman line up with him. Kevin Buford (three punt returns for 104 yards and a TD as a senior), Reese Fleming (yes, coming off ACL, but did have 1,003 rushing yards and 17 TDs as a junior) and Greg Garmon (2,859 yards, 27 TDs as a running back) would be the leaders in the clubhouse off prep resumes. Wide open here.
Assorted special teams lineups from 2011 (courtesy of college Scott Dochterman)
IOWA VS. PURDUE
Jason White-Greg Castillo-Steven Staggs-A.J. Derby-John Lowdermilk
Brad Herman-C.J. Fiedorowicz
Jonathan Gimm-Zach Derby
Jordan Bernstine-Kevonte Martin-Manley
White-Lowdermilk-AJ Derby-Herman-Nico Law-Anthony Hitchens-Collin Sleeper-Castillo
Lion: Shaun Prater
Ram: B.J. Lowery
Kicker: Mike Meyer
IOWA VS. MICHIGAN
White-Nick Nielsen-AJD-Jordan Lomax-Lowdermilk
IOWA VS. TENNESSEE TECH
Damon Bullock-Castillo-Bernstine-Nielsen-Marcus Collins-Hitchens-Tanner Miller-Tommy Donatell-White-Don Shumpert (later 21 for
Kickoff return unit
Field goal interior
Markus Zusevics-Riley Reiff-Casey Kreiter (snapper)-Brett Van Sloten-Casey McMillan
John Wienke holder
Punt unit (scattered players)
Kreiter (snapper), White (wingback), James Morris (up-back)