IOWA CITY — Iowa’s special teams have been stuck in neutral for much of the last five seasons.
More often than not, special teams have helped as much as they’ve hurt. You arguably could pin a few losses on flubbed onside kick recovery attempts (Minnesota in 2010-11 and Central Michigan last season), but for the most part, Iowa’s special teams have been perfect segues to the ensuing commercial break.
For example, the Hawkeyes finished 24th nationally in kick return defense last season. In kick returns, it was No. 50. Iowa was great at covering punts (No. 13 at 4.41 yards per return), but not so great at returning them (No. 80 with 7.44 per).
New assistant coach Chris White spent the last four seasons as special teams assistant with the Minnesota Vikings. Yes, the Vikings had Percy Harvin, one of the speediest weapons in the NFL, and the team parlayed Harvin into leading the NFL in kick returns the last two seasons.
“We’re going to run the same returns that we ran with Percy Harvin,” said White, 45. “I hope Jordan [Cotton] can do the same things Percy did.”
Heady talk, but why not? One thing is for sure with Iowa’s special teams, the eyes on it will be different than in 2012. That in and of itself won’t lead to a Harvin kind-of-deal, but if head coach Kirk Ferentz wants his team to take a step forward in this department, something had to change.
Very few college teams have full-time special teams coaches. White is the first coach in Ferentz’s 15 seasons as Iowa’s head coach to have the title special teams coordinator. Still, White also is the running backs coach, and, as you know, that’s been a fairly busy position in the last five or so years in Iowa City.
White sounded like a man who’s ready for the inevitable close up when there’s a special teams mistake or triumph. TV always seems to find the special teams coach.
“Special teams has been kind of what I’ve been known for since I’ve been coaching, and I’ll tell you what, it’s a different deal when you need to punt the ball from the back of your own end zone and get the ball out of there,” White said. “There’s a different feel, butterflies going in your belly, but it’s exciting at the same time.
“The thing that excites me about special teams is that they can galvanize the whole football team, and I saw it happen last year at Minnesota.”
White will have help. Linebackers coach LeVar Woods will take a portion. Graduate assistant Kelvin Bell will have responsibility. In conversations Wednesday, White coaches the specialists (punter, kicker) and Woods has punt team.
Woods has a unique perspective here. He played seven seasons in the NFL and made most of the living as a special teamer.
“Special teams is a game when you’re competing in space, which is something sometimes forgotten and it’s hard to do,” he said. “It’s hard to be able to compete in space, make plays, blocks and tackles in space, so those are the things we’ve been focusing on most so far.”
Woods talked about learning on the job in regard to special teams last season. Against Iowa State, Iowa was in a “punt safe” to guard against a fake, but defensive end Dominic Alvis broke through and nearly blocked the punt. He did run into the punter and was hit with a roughing the kicker penalty, giving ISU more life.
“That was my fault,” Woods said. “I’d never coached them on it, never even told them about it. Never thought, ‘Hey, he may get there and block the punt,’ because we weren’t set up to block the punt. So, instantly I learned, boom, right there.”
White is already processing the differences in punt return rules from the NFL to college. In the NFL, only gunners can run down field. In college, the “shield punt” formation allows the seven players up front to immediately jump into lanes and provide coverage.
Iowa returns senior kicker Mike Meyer, who needs 19 field goals to catch Nate Kaeding’s school record of 67. Sophomore Connor Kornbrath had an up-and-down first year, averaging 37.9 yards a punt.
“Obviously it was growing pains for him at times last year, and we’re trying to get him to be more consistent,” White said. “He has a really strong leg. He’s a big kid. He’s flexible for a big guy. Working on a few techniques and fundamentals just to keep him nice and compact and really driving through the ball.”
Cotton, who led the Big Ten last season with 28.21 yards on 19 kick returns, is in the mix for kick and punt return. White also listed senior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley, sophomore running back Jordan Canzeri and freshmen Maurice Fleming and Riley McCarron.
White said he’s not a “stat guy,” but he is concerned about average starting field position for offense and defense, which was an emphasis with the Vikings.
“It’s all what we call complementary football, and that’s all the job is with special teams is to complement your offense and defense,” he said.
Stuck in neutral
Here’s where Iowa has ranked nationally in coverage and return special teams categories the last five seasons.
|Punt return||7.4 (80th)||7.9 (64th)||8.2 (62nd)||7.5 (78th)||10.1 (42nd)|
|Kick return||22.4 (50th)||21.9 (55th)||25.3 (12th)||22.9 (37th)||20.5 (78th)|
|Punt return defense||4.4 (13th)||4.6 (10th)||3.9 (6th)||5.7 (21st)||5.0 (9th)|
|Kick return defense||19.4 (24th)||21.6 (58th)||21.1 (51st)||18.4 (9th)||21.9 (82nd)|