IOWA CITY — The special teams discussion got a little prickly.
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was asked about the three onside kicks that have lost Iowa games in the last three seasons. Coming off the onside that tilted last week’s 32-31 toward Central Michigan, the only club in Ferentz’s bag here was prickly.
“What would you guess?” Ferentz said. “We haven’t celebrated, if that’s what you’re asking.”
Moving on to the more informational part of the special teams discussion, Ferentz was asked about who recovers the ball, who blocks and the idea behind who is asked to do what.
“There’s some gray area in it, if you talk to people who know a lot about special teams, there’s a lot of gray area in how you do it,” he said. “There also some gray areas in how you line up. Needless to say, that’s something we’re looking at hard right now.”
Minnesota coach Jerry Kill pulled off an onside kick against the Hawkeyes last season in the Gophers’ 22-21 upset. Jay Sawvel coaches Kill’s defensive backs and special teams. Sawvel hooked on with Kill in 2001 at Southern Illinois and then at Northern Illinois before make the jump to Minnesota in 2011.
That’s 12 seasons as Kill’s special teams coordinator. That’s a lot of time at the video screen conjuring up special teams chicanery. It gives the Gophers (4-0) a special teams edge over Iowa (2-2) when the two teams open their Big Ten schedules Saturday at Kinnick Stadium.
It’s probably a good idea to separate special teams into specialists and units. Iowa’s specialists are holding up their end. Kicker Mike Meyer has made 9 of 10 field goals, including a gutsy 46-yarder into the wind last week. Punter Connor Kornbrath averages 35.75 a punt (11th in the Big Ten), but Iowa is locked in on riding the highs and lows of having a true freshman in this position.
Run the numbers for Iowa’s coverage and return units and they all come up in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Punt coverage is ninth at 7.0 yards a return. Kick coverage is eighth with 23.55 yards. Iowa’s punt return is eighth at 5.5. Kick return is 11th with 16.79 per return.
A special teams coordinator who’s been with his head coach since 2001 probably sees opportunity here.
“It just seems like we’re a player short,” Ferentz said. “We’ve talked about this in the past. Like [former Iowa linebacker Tyler] Nielsen being hurt. It seems like one thing leads to another. It’s concerning, because it’s showing up and we’re not getting the edge we need to get on a consistent basis.”
If you examine Iowa’s special teams, it’s pretty much industry standard.
It’s a collaboration between defensive backs coach Darrell Wilson and running backs coach Lester Erb, with graduate assistant Kelvin Bell chipping in. Erb oversees kickers and punter. Wilson does the rest.
The Football Writers Association of America has a directory that lists all 120 FBS coaching staffs. The 2011-12 guide showed just 11 programs with dedicated special teams coaches. Those run the gamut from Army and Hawaii to USC and Kansas State. The standard is one special teams coordinator who also coaches tight ends, running backs, defensive backs or linebackers because special teams are mostly made up of those players.
A dedicated special teams coach is rare. With schools now able to hire four grad assistants instead of three, you’ll probably see more of them involved on special teams.
“I don’t know if there’s a standard operating rule,” Ferentz said. “. . . There are some teams that go that route, but I’d say it’s in the minority. It’s pretty rare to see that, but it’s possibly something you could do.”
Cornerback Micah Hyde has been Iowa’s punt returner the last two seasons. He said Iowa puts the time in on special teams. It’s a good portion of practice. There are special teams meetings.
“It’s not really an excuse [the amount of time Iowa puts in on special teams],” said Hyde, whose 5.5 yards a punt return is fifth in the Big Ten. “We focus a lot on special teams. Coach knows it’s a big asset in the game. I don’t think that’s an excuse, we just need to work a little harder on special teams.”
What Iowa is doing and likely will continue to do is look for the next Sean Considine.
Considine, who’s in his eighth NFL season as a safety, this year with the Baltimore Ravens, made Iowa special teams a weapon in 2003-04. He blocked four punts in his career, with three of the four being recovered for Iowa touchdowns.
A Jayme Murphy wouldn’t be bad. He blew up kicks with abandon before a concussion sidelined him in ’09. A Matt Melloy might be good. He blocked a punt that led to a TD against Florida in the ’04 Outback Bowl. Or maybe an Antwan Allen (returned a blocked field goal 85 yards for a TD against Purdue in 2002) or a D.J. Johnson (who returned a blocked PAT 99 yards for two points against Penn State in ’02).
“If you analyze who those guys were 10 years ago, the door is open for good stories any time,” Ferentz said. “[Running back Mark] Weisman is a good story. We could use a few more of those on special teams, and, hopefully, they’re getting ready to emerge.”