Four Downs — The Special Teams (spring edition)

'Search party for speed' should boost Iowa's special teams

Published: March 25 2014 | 5:41 pm - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 10:09 am in

QUICK LOOK BACK: Iowa had a breakthrough in punt returns last season. In a couple of different ways.

First, senior wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley returned punts of 83 and 63 yards, respectively, for touchdowns against Western Michigan. He was only the third player in Big Ten history to return two punts for scores. He totaled 184 punt return yards, just 17 shy of tying Nike Kinnick’s single-game record of 201 set in 1939. The returns were 59 seconds within one another.

“There were a lot of holes in their punt coverage,” Martin-Manley said Saturday. “Coaches told us and I saw it on film that we would have some opportunities to make big plays today. We were able to do that.”

(Western Michigan ended up 105th in the nation in covering punts, allowing 11.5 yards on 28 returns.)

Martin-Manley finished second in the Big Ten with 15.70 yards a return. If you took out the two big 'uns against WMU, his average still would've been a respectable 7.2 yards. Martin-Manley led Iowa with 40 catches for 388 yards last season (he's led Iowa in receptions in each of the last two years), and it looks as though he'll again be adding punt return to his duties in '14.

The other breakthrough was the Hawkeyes successfully covered a fake punt.

Down 17-10 with about five minutes left in the third quarter, Nebraska tried a fake punt. It was fourth-and-3 from the Cornhuskers' 32. Punter Sam Foltz took the snap and broke to the right. Iowa was in its base 4-3 defense. Three Huskers with offensive lineman and defensive linemen numbers tried to block defensive end Drew Ott and linebackers Christian Kirksey and James Morris.

Kirksey closed on Foltz and tackled him for an 8-yard loss. Next play, Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock drilled wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley for a score and, the Hawkeyes maintained a relatively comfortable margin en route to a 38-17 victory, their first at Nebraska since 1943.

“I’ve heard about that, I remember those plays,” coach Kirk Ferentz said, interrupting a question about fake punts, obviously knowing what was coming. “Thanks for bringing them up. I love reading about them, too.”

After Michigan State fooled the Hawkeyes for the second time on a fake punt in the '13 season, head coach Kirk Ferentz said not facetiously but probably facetiously that the Hawkeyes wouldn't return another punt . . . ever.

“If you pressed me today, I’d say we may never try to return a punt again,” Ferentz said. “To do that, to block guys, you have to turn and go with those guys to shadow them. When you do that, you open the door. Michigan State did a good job of taking advantage of that.

“What helped us a couple of weeks ago [Martin-Manley's two punt returns for touchdowns vs. Western Michigan], we paid for on Saturday. It cost us a field goal and a possession. So yeah, I may be leaning toward the point where you never try to see us return one again. Just fair catch it and try to keep it off the ground.”

That got some national play. Iowa, of course, continued to return punts. And, finally, covered a fake.

Iowa's kick coverage remained problematic (a word here that means it wasn't a terrible problem, but definitely needs tightening). The Hawkeyes finished No. 101 in the nation allowing 23.28 yards a return (eight in the Big Ten). What would immediately improve that is more touchbacks. Kicker Mike Meyer had 30 touchbacks in 68 kickoffs (sixth in the Big Ten). That wasn't a bad number, but if your kick coverage is 101st in the nation, you want touchbacks.

Punter Connor Kornbrath improved from his true freshman season, averaging 39.97 an attempt. Other numbers for Kornbrath: 17 percent of his punts (11 of 65) were for 50-plus yards, 42 percent (27 of 65) were inside the opponent's 20-yard line, 23 percent (15) were fair catches and he had just three touchbacks.

FOURTH DOWN — CRITICAL QUESTIONS: How many scholarship punters does Iowa have?

Two. Kornbrath will be a junior this year. He'll have a competitor in juco transfer Dillon Kidd. Ferentz wanted competition, and so there is Kidd.

Who's the long snapper this season?

Iowa has had a fantastic run with four seasons of perfection from Andrew Schulze and then another three years from Casey Kreiter. Now, redshirt freshman Tyler Kluver sits as the heir apparent. The 6-0, 220-pounder walked on at Iowa in 2013, at a time when a few national programs started giving scholarships to long snappers. Kluver, who participated in the Under Armor All-American game as a long snapper last January, has to prove it on the field this season, but should be on a scholarship track after '14.

Unless there's an upset, it's probably Kluver.

Who's the placekicker?

Probably Marshall Koehn. The junior walk-on from Solon has waited three seasons for his shot. When Meyer was in departure mode late last season, he praised Koehn's leg strength. Where will the competition come from? Incoming freshman Mick Ellis is the only scholarship kicker.

Can Iowa improve kick coverage?

Yes. Last season was the first under special teams coordinator Chris White. Iowa has recruited more speed in the last two classes. Some of that should show up on special teams. Is there a potential juggernaut for a gunner spot? That remains to be seen.

THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: Meyer leaves Iowa as one of its best kickers. He ranks second in career field goals (61) and career scoring (324 points). He also ended career with 122 consecutive PATs, setting school record (previous was 60 by Nate Kaeding). That streak ranks sixth best all-time in the Big Ten and was fourth longest current active streak in 2013.

Meyer also had some clutch. He made 19 of 21 career field goal attempts in fourth quarter (16 of 18) and in overtime (3 for 3).

Kick return specialist Jordan Cotton also graduates. He set Outback Bowl records for longest kick return (96 yards) and top kick return average (42.7) . That 96-yarder is longest non-scoring kick return in Iowa history. Cotton ranked fourth in the Big Ten and 26th nationally in kick return average (25.2) in 2013. He led the Big Ten with 28.2 yards on 19 returns in 2012.

There are two pools of players who could contribute in the return game and, perhaps, special teams overall. The four wide receivers who'll be redshirt freshmen -- Andre Harris, Derrick Mitchell Jr., Derrick Willies and A.J. Jones -- bring speed and some decent size. If a player like Willies (6-4, 210) doesn't factor as a returner, he could be on a cover or return team with his size. Same with Jones (6-3, 200).

Iowa also has five defensive backs incoming as true freshmen (Marcel Joly, Miles Taylor, Omar Truitt, Josh Jackson and Jalen Embry). They have return and special teams unit potential.

SECOND DOWN — BATTLES BREWING: Kicker and punter are a good place to start here.

Kidd was basically a free agent in January. Out of El Camino Community College in Torrance, Calif., Kidd accepted a scholarship offer from Iowa after an extremely short courtship (maybe two days). Kidd was ready to enroll at Florida International. FIU’s special teams coach bolted to become defensive line coach at Connecticut.

Kidd looked at his options. He contacted Chris Sailer, a renowned kicking coach. Sailer told him White contacted Sailer and was looking for a punter.

“After about 50 phone calls with coach White the last three days, I think we both felt comfortable,” said Kidd, whose dad, John, punted at Northwestern before playing a 15-year career in the NFL. Kidd accepted a scholarship offer. He spent two years as a backup punter at Florida State before he transferred to El Camino.

After two colleges and one potential college in three years, he’s happy to have a spot in the Big Ten.

“I’m just going to work hard, kick well and have no regrets,” said Kidd, who averaged 38.2 yards on 50 punts for El Camino last season.

In February, Ferentz was frank when asked why another punter?

“It’s an area that we think we need healthy competition this spring and this summer," Ferentz said. "We feel like we have a chance to have a good football team this next year. I know we’ve lost some really good players in that area, so we want to add to the competition.

". . . We’re going to do what we have to do to create the competition on the practice field we think is necessary."

If you extrapolate that to kicker, then maybe it's not as simple as a handoff from Meyer to Koehn. Ellis will be the other kicker on scholarship. As a junior, Ellis connected on 13 of 17 field goals, including kicks of 53, 52 and 49 yards. He also had 34 touchbacks.

Don't discount the walk-ons here. Alden Haffar is a senior and has one year in the program. And then there's Mason City's Miguel Recinos, who had options to walk on at Iowa or Iowa State. He picked Iowa and, in this Mason City Globe-Gazette post, Recinos said, “Coach (Ferentz) said the job is wide open,” said Recinos, who was 18 of 20 on PATs and had touchbacks on 34 of his 38 kickoffs. “If I can win the job I have the opportunity to get a scholarship as soon as the next semester.”

You have to like Koehn's chances, but keep, as Ferentz said, "This is a competitive exercise."

FIRST DOWN — SPRING AND BEYOND: So, Iowa's specialist scholarship rollcall goes Kornbrath, Kidd and Ellis. If a scholarship opens between now and August, Koehn might be the next one up (unless Waukee OL Ross Reynolds sheds the grayshirt). If Kluver proves himself at long snapper, he'll also earn a scholarship.

This is some long-ranging here, but in 2015, Kornbrath, Kidd and Koehn will be seniors. You can see how specialist scholarships get twisted around. A healthy situation would be an upperclassmen punter and kicker on scholarship matched with freshmen. Iowa has a small imbalance at punter.

"In the old days we’d have specialists come in as walk-ons and earn a scholarship," Ferentz said. "The thing about [former Fry-era kicker] Rob Houghtlin, that’s how he got here. But things have changed, too. [Former Lou Groza winner in the early Ferentz years] Nate Kaeding came in as a scholarship player, and I’m glad he did. All of our deep snappers have been walk-ons and they’ve earned it. It’s like everything, we’re going to do what we have to do to create the competition on the practice field we think is necessary.”

So, Iowa will use as many scholarships as it has to here.

-- Iowa changed the design of kick returns last season. White wanted to get Cotton the ball, and so the Hawkeyes did a single back deep with another receiver short. Prior to '13, Iowa had two receivers deep at equal depth. This could change while White and the staff sort out who can do what in kick return.

-- Running back Jordan Canzeri was the No. 2 kick return specialist last season, even though it was just three returns. His profile at running back obviously rocketed as the season progressed. He's fast enough to have his foot in the door on KR, but he's already there at RB. This is a risk-reward proposition. It's harder to find No. 1 RBs than No. 1 or 2 kick returners.

-- The last two recruiting classes haven't totally been a quest for speed, but they've at least been a search party for speed. That should boost special teams.

In talking with recruiting coordinator Eric Johnson on incoming cornerback Marcel Joly, “I think you look at him, Omar [Truitt], Josh Jackson, we have some guys who redshirted in this past class who I think you’ll see be outstanding in the return game. I think we’ve helped ourselves on special teams in the last two years with the athletes we’ve brought in."

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