Jordan Cotton introduced himself to Iowa fan-dom as a football player in 2012.
He came in as a wide receiver and hadn’t seen much action (one catch for 4 yards going into last season in just two career games) going into his junior year. He was on the verge of being forgotten.
And even last season, Cotton didn’t have much go his way until half way through the year. Through the first six games, he returned just two kicks and had five receptions.
Cotton kicked the door open on kick return with an 82-yard TD return that was called back on a penalty at Michigan State. The next week, Cotton (6-1, 192) put some salve on an otherwise dreadful wound of a game against Penn State with a 92-yard TD that finally put Iowa on the board in a 38-14 defeat at Kinnick Stadium.
When the 2012 season wrapped, Cotton led the Big Ten with 28.21 yards per kick return. He also finished with his most productive year as a wide receiver, catching 12 passes for 172 yards, including a 47-yard TD on a flea flicker.
Basically, in a year, Cotton went from the verge of being forgotten to Iowa’s special teams MVP.
Key 2012 factor: Perhaps Cotton’s most interesting number from ’12 was tackles. He picked up six, which was at least second for Iowa special teamers behind long snapper Casey Kreiter. That shows how hungry Cotton was to get to the field and take advantage of an opportunity. Another indicator of the hunger factor was Cotton had to climb over senior WR Keenan Davis and freshman RB Greg Garmon to win the kick returner job. He didn’t get his first real looks there until four games into the season.
Always considered one of the fastest players on the team, Cotton finally got a chance to show what he could do and, more importantly, he did some stuff.
Offseason factor: Cotton has a new wide receivers coach in Bobby Kennedy. He also has a new special teams coach in Chris White/LeVar Woods (who, along with grad assistant Kelvin Bell, will split up special teams units).
White comes to Iowa after four seasons as a special teams assistant with the Minnesota Vikings, where the Vikings took full advantage of kick returner Percy Harvin. White will bring similar concepts and he’s obviously hoping for similar results.
“As far as in style, we’re going to run the same returns that we ran with Percy Harvin,” White said. “I hope Jordan can do the same things Percy did and I know Jordan did a nice job on kickoff return last year.”
As far as receiver goes, Cotton has work to do to crack the top three, which, it looks like on paper right now, is Kevonte Martin-Manley, Tevaun Smith and Jacob Hillyer. Also, there will be five new WR recruits in camp this fall.
Still, Kennedy is serious about Cotton and his senior standing.
“You look at Donald Shumpert and then also Jordan Cotton, I think those guys can really run, and we’ve got to find ways to get them the ball,” Kennedy said. “When I went into my room for my first meeting, I kept Jordan and Donald out, and I said part of my job is to make sure you leave Iowa the right way and go out the right way.”
Competition: Cotton’s only competition in kick return is himself. He should resume this role and should be an advantage for the Hawkeyes. Does he get a look at punt return? Cornerback Micah Hyde was Iowa’s primary punt returner the last two seasons, but before Hyde, the previous four seasons the job was held by wide receivers (Colin Sandeman, Andy Brodell). White mentioned Martin-Manley, Riley McCarron, Maurice Fleming and Jordan Canzeri as possibilities here.
The competition at WR will be intense. Cotton has experience and speed. That might be enough to wedge out a role.
Why No. 25?: Cotton is another candidate for special teams captain. I see huge value in that. The offense won’t earn a checkmark in the pregame advantage category until it shows it can put first downs together and points on the board. This makes Cotton’s potential on kick return all the more important. Don’t discount his role as a gunner on punt coverage, a unit where it’s nice to have speed but more important to tackle the ball carrier. If Cotton catches 12 passes again this season, his value on special teams justifies a No. 25.
Outlook: Cotton was the only Hawkeye to earn a first-team mention on Phil Steele’s all-Big Ten team. Sure, the key word there is “preseason,” but it at least gives you a glimpse at the possibilities for Cotton. He could be a huge help to an offense that, let’s face it, will need a boost, especially early on with a new QB. Cotton has a special teams resume that comes with expectations. Where he stands as a wide receiver is another story. There’s a lot of competition. Is Cotton’s speed a singular enough attribute to give him a lift?