Iowa’s punting needs improvement in 2013.
Sophomore Connor Kornbrath was a redshirt freshman last season trying to find his way. Coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged at the beginning of the year that there would be some growing pains with a freshman. There were, probably spiking when Kornbrath had a punt blocked and turned into an eventual TD at Northwestern.
That wasn’t on Kornbrath. This play was a disaster waiting to happen. Northwestern lined up eight on the line of scrimmage with one other player a step off the LOS. NU’s Tyris Jones, a 6-0, 220-pound senior running back, lined up in a three-point stance across from tight ends Jake Duzey and Zach Derby. They hooked up with NU players when the ball was snapped. Up-back John Lowdermilk never saw Jones, instead looking for someone to block on the outside and drifting that way. Personal protector James Morris kept his eyes straight ahead. Jones split them and didn’t even have to dive to block Kornbrath’s punt, staying on his feet and getting his hands on it.
It didn’t appear to be schemed, other than a block call on NU’s part. It appeared to be a blown assignment, one that led to a first down at Iowa’s 4, a TD and a 21-3 deficit.
Key 2012 factor: Kornbrath didn’t completely win the job. Senior QB John Wienke carved out a role for himself as a the short punter (or pooch punter, the punter who specializes in placing short attempts). Wienke was a senior, so Kornbrath will likely get a shot as a full-service punter this year.
Kornbrath would be he first to tell you the numbers weren’t great. Iowa’s overall 37.3 on 68 punts was the lowest average since 35.7 in 2001. Kornbrath’s 37.92 average was ninth in the Big Ten.
Offseason factor: The Jonny Mullings experiment is over. Iowa took a shot on Mullings, an Australian who put together a stunner of a YouTube video, who Iowa found after one season kicking footballs for the Ottumwa High School JV during a stint as a foreign exchange student. It didn’t work. He spent three seasons on the bench and never punted in a game. Ferentz announced this summer that Mullings would forgo his final two seasons.
This hands the keys over to Kornbrath, who’ll be backed up by sophomore walk-on Marshall Koehn, who’s more of a kicker than a punter. Aside from Wienke, Iowa was all in on Kornbrath last season. Now, it’s really all in on him.
Competition: None. Iowa is all in with Kornbrath, who’s the only punter listed on the roster.
Here’s special teams coordinator Chris White on Kornbrath: “I think if you ask Conor, obviously it was growing pains for him at times last year, and we’re trying to get him to be more consistent. You know, 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. And we want to just eliminate the miss‑hits with him and really just be more consistent, because I think he’s a very talented kicker/punter.”
Why No. 28?: Last year, I had him at No. 42, believing that he would win the No. 1 punter spot. This year, he’s No. 28. Why? Iowa converted 36.36 percent of its third downs last season (89th in the nation). It’s reached internet meme proportions, but punting will be a key component for the Hawkeyes in ’13, like it or not.
Outlook: White’s assessment shows there’s no fatal flaw with Kornbrath. White notes a strong leg, flexibility and that it will come down to technique for improvement. Kornbrath did have six 50-plus punts in 2012. That’s as many as Eric Guthrie had in 2011. Ryan Donahue had 15 in 2010. Kornbrath’s improvement is in front of him. It’s totally doable. Will we be able to use Kornbrath’s progress as a measure for White’s effectiveness/plan for special teams? Maybe.