IOWA CITY — Punter Connor Kornbrath struggled through an inconsistent season last fall, ranking 10th in the Big Ten and splitting snaps with quarterback-turned-punter John Wienke.
But that’s hardly unexpected for a true freshman. Kornbrath averaged 37.9 yards on 53 punts, dropped 10 inside the 20-yard line and netted only one touchback. He also had one blocked at Northwestern, which led to a touchdown.
“I think I had too many ups and downs,” Kornbrath said. “I really wanted to increase my consistency. That’s been a main focus over this offseason. Working with Casey (Kreiter the long snapper) Michael (Meyer, kicker), the special teams unit, just fine tuning little things and becoming more consistent.”
Kornbrath is Kirk Ferentz’s third freshman to punt regularly in his 15 years as Iowa’s head coach. His previous freshman punters produced mixed results. In 2007, Ryan Donahue set a Big Ten record with 86 punts and produced a 41.1 yard-per-punt average. In 2001, Ryan Bradley averaged 36.7 yards a punt.
Donahue had a partially blocked punt as a freshman, but he also boomed punts of 82 and 76 yards, respectively. Bradley had two blocked kicks as a freshman but produced 12 inside the 20-yard line. Ferentz inherited Jason Baker, who punted for 11 seasons in the NFL. As a freshman at Iowa in 1997, Baker averaged 41.8 a kick, produced a Sun Bowl record 76-yard punt and did not have a block. He eventually became Iowa’s all-time leader in punts and punt yardage.
Kornbrath dealt with his own punt block last year in a 28-17 loss at Northwestern. As a result of an injury to Iowa upback Brad Rogers and protection miscommunication, Northwestern’s Tyris Jones blocked Kornbrath’s punt and the Wildcats took over at the 4. They scored one play later to put the game virtually out of reach.
“We knew a year ago we were going to ride the roller coaster a little bit,” Ferentz said. “I think anytime you play a true freshman that’s apt to happen at any position, certainly the punter. I think back to Jason Baker, the year before, his ’99, he was not the most consistent guy. Then in 2000, he really took off.”
Kornbrath did have his moments, too. He had six punts of 50 yards or more, including a long of 60 yards against Michigan. Through the offseason, Kornbrath discovered he needed to perfect his punting process. From snap to kick, the it must take no more than two seconds. His handling from the time it touches his hand to when it leaves his foot is 1.3 seconds. Absolutely no more.
“When I came in last year, mine was a little bit slow,” he said. “But I eventually got it down, and I’ve been consistent with it.
“Recently I’ve been focusing on shortening my steps with my head down and better follow through. That’s really had some better results.”
Kornbrath, a Bridgeport, W. Va. native, focused on kicking between 30 and 40 balls a day during the spring and that has grown to 40 during training camp. He spent time with Donahue and Eric Guthrie, who punted for Iowa in 2011. Both have NFL experience and Korthbrath listened intensely.
“It was really helpful working with them a couple of sessions and certain drills,” Kornbrath said. “(They told me) really have a focus every time you go out. They stress that. I’ve been doing that a lot more.”
The difference between a good punter and an middle-of-the-road punter is nearly a first down every possession. Michigan’s Will Hagerup averaged 45 yards a kick, 8.1 yards better than Kornbrath. If Kornbrath can make a jump in his second year, it could prove vital for Iowa’s defense.
Donahue, Bradley and Baker eventually became consistent, four-year punters for Iowa. Ferentz hopes Kornbrath can join that company in time.
“I think with Connor, we’re really counting on him for more consistency this year,” Ferentz said. “But it’s hard to just hand experience to a player; you just can’t do that, in particular a punter. That’s something you’ve got to go through. I thought he did a good job as a freshman, but we’re really looking forward to him growing in that role.”
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