IOWA CITY — Last off-season, Iowa hired special teams coach Chris White from the NFL. Western Michigan special teams coach Rob Wenger was the defensive coordinator at Division III Allegheny College last year.
Wenger didn’t start his current duties until 10 days before this season started after Broncos’ special teams coach J.B. Gibboney abruptly resigned.
That all kind of showed last Saturday in the Hawkeyes’ 59-3 brutalizing of WMU. Iowa’s Kevonte Martin-Manley returned two punts for touchdowns, something a Hawkeye had never done.
Watch those two returns in slow motion, and you see a prepared 11-man return unit totally overwhelming a coverage unit. On Martin-Manley’s first touchdown, his best trick was barely outracing some of his teammates like tight end George Kittle to the end zone.
“It was all adrenaline,” red-shirt freshman Kittle said about being part of the two returns for scores. “It’s just a great feeling.”
It was the first and second punt-return Iowa had busted for a touchdown since Andy Brodell against Iowa State in 2008. Yes, the opponent was a Western Michigan team that is now 159th in the Sagarin Ratings of FBS and FCS teams. But only three other FBS teams (Duke, Rutgers, UAB) had a punt-return for a score last week.
It’s part of what Iowa hopes is a bigger picture, which is having special teams live up to their name.
“We’re not there yet,” Hawkeyes Coach Kirk Ferentz said Tuesday, “but at least we’re I think starting to make some strides. That was a concern a couple weeks ago, a big concern.”
Martin-Manley was a no-brainer as the Big Ten’s Special Teams Player of the Week, and the College Football Performance Awards named him their national special-teams Performer of the Week.
Iowa punter Connor Kornbrath was a CFPA honorable-mention Punter of the Week. Who knew there the College Football Performance Awards even existed? Who knew Iowa even had to punt against Western Michigan.
But it did, three times. And Kornbrath averaged 47 yards on those kicks, with one of them downed at the WMU 8-yard line. The Broncos had one yard in punt-returns, 191 less than Iowa.
“My mom sent me a link (to the recognition from the CFPA),” Kornbrath said. “I never really knew about the award.”
Asked if he even worked up a sweat Saturday, Kornbrath said "Maybe from running out for all the extra-points to hold. Other than that, not really."
Twelve of Kornbrath’s 21 punts have been downed inside the 20, and Iowa has allowed just 20 yards on opposing punt-returns. That works.
“I think I’ve made a positive turn since the beginning of the season,” said Kornbrath, a sophomore from West Virginia. “I’m getting more consistent with both the plus-50 (yards) and regular punting, to open out as much field-position as I can.”
I don’t know what White has done for Kornbrath, but Kittle said White has made a big difference in special teams since leaving the Minnesota Vikings for Iowa. Kittle should know, since he’s on the punt-return, kickoff-return and kickoff units.
“He does a lot of things, but they’re really basic,” Kittle said after Saturday’s game. “He puts us in the position to be able to make the play. That’s what I find is so great about him.
“We don’t do anything fancy. He lines us up in front of the guy and he says ‘That’s you on the block. All you’ve got to do is this and this, and you’re going to kick him out and it’s going to be a touchdown.’ That’s how it happened with Kevonte. They’re basic things that we execute really well.”
Kittle is the son of Bruce Kittle, an offensive tackle and co-captain of Iowa’s 1981 Rose Bowl team. He went to high school in Norman, Okla., but spent much of his youth living in Iowa City when his father worked in Eastern Iowa.
“I grew up watching Iowa football,” Kittle said. “I grew up watching special teams. One of the biggest things I remember was (C.J. Jones’ game-opening) kickoff-return in the Orange Bowl for a touchdown against USC.
“The guys who were huge playmakers here started off on the special teams. like Dallas Clark, (Bob) Sanders, (Chad) Greenway. That’s where they made their name, that’s how they got on the field for offense and defense.”
Kittle helped take out one of the Broncos on Martin-Manley’s second score. Punt-returns, he said, are his favorite unit “because you’re face to face with the guy. You can be physical if you want, and if they’re not physical back you can just destroy them.”
Under Ferentz, Iowa never has and never will be a finesse team. If the special-teams are causing destruction, it’s a sign that the whole system may again be working properly.