IOWA CITY — Kevonte Martin-Manley showed how quick and decisive he can be during last weekend’s punt return-o-rama.
The junior wide receiver earned Big Ten special teams player of the week with his pair of punt returns for touchdowns in Iowa’s 59-3 victory over Western Michigan. OK, do that once, and hey, that’s pretty cool. And then do it again, 59 seconds later, that’s a wow moment.
Punt returns are tough, especially in college vs. the NFL, which has rules to keep the punting team in place at least until the ball leaves the punter’s foot.
“Yeah, the biggest thing, it’s just a free-for-all,” coach Kirk Ferentz said. “When the ball is snapped, everybody runs down the field, so that’s why you’re seeing all these — trying to think of the right word here — such a wide variety of punting styles, whereas it’s more uniform, but it’s all because of the rules.
“People have taken advantage of those rules, and it’s just — I’m not sure it’s great for the game — but that one is not gaining a lot of traction, either.”
Quick and decisive, that’s sort of what landed Martin-Manley, a Pontiac, Mich., native, in Iowa City.
In the summer of 2009, the 6-0, 205-pounder committed to Bowling Green. He still took visits and in December, jumped on a plane to Iowa. Iowa coaches told him a scholarship offer was coming, but he had to decide on it before he got back on the plane to Detroit.
Tick, tick, tick.
“During my visit, they said if I didn’t commit, they were probably going to offer another guy coming in,” said Martin-Manley, who leads the Hawkeyes with 20 catches this season (fourth in the Big Ten).
If you think that’s cold, it’s what happens on any given weekend on any given campus.
“It’s the harsh reality,” Martin-Manley said with a laugh. “They can’t take everybody. It’s a business at the end of the day. You can’t take everybody. I was ready for that. Coaches were honest with me. They told me what the deal was and it was a better opportunity for me. I took that with no pressure at all.”
Ferentz said he remembered a “funny uncle.” Martin-Manley made the trip with his mom, Leanna Martin, and uncle, Cisco McKinney (“that was a childhood name he was given,” Martin-Manley said).
“He is a very funny guy, a very funny guy,” Martin-Manley said, cracking up at this point.
By the way, Martin-Manley and his pair of punt returns made the New York Times sports section. That’s a national deal, but it didn’t seem like a big deal. He was the same guy in the postgame and during Tuesday’s media session.
“Kevonte’s very level-headed,” running back Mark Weisman said. “He’s a very humble, he’s perfectly fine.”
There’s a huge disparity between Martin-Manley’s reception total (20) and the rest of the receiving corps. Tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is No. 2 with seven catches. With 102 career receptions, Martin-Manley is far and away the most experienced pass catcher on Iowa’s roster.
“We knew he was going to be a big player,” sophomore wide receiver Jacob Hillyer said. “He put in the work in the offseason. For us to have a defined leader, it means a lot. It helps us as a receiving corps come together.”
Ferentz has said the defense dictates where the ball goes in the passing game. Tuesday, quarterback Jake Rudock confirmed that and credited Martin-Manley’s route running.
“He’s running really good routes, getting open and I’m seeing him,” Rudock said. “Sometimes, guys run great routes, but my eyes are the other way because the coverage made me go to one side. It just happens that he’s finding his spot and he’s getting open.”
The theme here is that Martin-Manley seems to know which way to go, whether it’s routes, punt returns or weekends to decide where to spend the next four or five years of your life.
“It was all me, if I didn’t want to commit here, I wouldn’t have,” Martin-Manley said. “I sincerely felt like this was the best option for me. I told family and friends right away and they were excited for me. I felt like it was the right decision, there wasn’t any pressure.”
After calling friends and family, Martin-Manley had one more phone call to make that weekend in December ’09. He called a Bowling Green assistant from the plane before it took off.
“He told me he didn’t think it was a good decision,” Martin-Manley said, “but hey, any coach is going to tell you that. They want you.”
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