Assume the Position: Special Teams

It's about that time.  For the next two months, BHGP will be previewing this year's Iowa Hawkeyes, position-by-position.  Naturally, as the earth revolves around the sun, things will change.  Therefore, we're starting with the position we are most certain of, and ending with running back the position of which we are least certain.  To date:

1. Defensive Tackle
2. Tight End
3. Safety
4. Center

5. Defensive End

6. Wide Receiver
7. Linebacker

Today: Special Teams

Donahue_medium

You can't talk about Iowa special teams without asking the question: What the hell happened to Iowa's special teams?  At the end of 2004, after two blocked punts played a large part in the Citrus Bowl win over LSU, Iowa's special teams were being mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Virginia Tech.  Nate Keading won the Groza Award once, and should have won it again.  Gone are those halcyon days, replaced by abject mediocrity.  Nowhere was the downfall of Iowa's special teams more evident than last season's embarassing loss to Indiana, where Iowa's placekicking tandem of Austin Signor and Daniel Murray missed 2 field goals (one from 42, one a chip shot) and a momentum-killing extra point.  With that said, the special teams came through with blocked kicks against Northwestern and WMU, and all the key players are back.

The thrill is gone.  It's time to get it back.

Punter

Ryan Donahue (6'3", 180, Soph.) - In a Jekyll-and-Hyde first season as the starting punter, Donahue was bad early and great late.  He was prone to the occasional shank early in the year.  Never was this more evident than against Wisconsin, where Iowa bled field position in one of those hideously ugly three-and-out battle royals you occasionally get in the Big Ten.  Somewhere around Penn State week, however, things began to click for young Donahue, and he was competent bordering or downright great for the remainder of the season.  He looks to be a good pooch punter, which is always helpful.  He was also the most overworked Iowa punter since Jason Baker's ill-fated Heisman Trophy campaign in 1999.  By the end of the year, he was honorable mention all-conference.  Not bad for a guy who had a 12-yard punt against Iowa State.

Donahue was thought to be really damn good in high school (U.S. Army All-American Game participant; 4 stars from Scout), and he looks like he might be really damn good in college.  Let's just hope we don't use him quite so much this year.

Kicker

I knew this was whole "positions we don't know about go last" thing was a good idea.  What was a toss-up position last week is much more clear-cut today.  Hooray transfers! 

Daniel Murray (5'10", 185, Soph.) - Murray entered last season ostensibly tied with Austin Signor, but Signor was taking all the kicks through the first three weeks of the season.  Murray took all the kicks during the Wisconsin game, the two split field goal duty against Indiana (which was a horrible idea, especially given that both kickers had struggled and obviously had little more than a shred of confidence left), and Murray took every kick from that point on.  Much like Donahue, he showed improvement as the season progressed.  In September, Ferentz wouldn't even consider sending Murray on the field from 40+ yards; less that 2 months later, he was knocking a 47-yard field goal through the uprights to take the lead over Michigan State.

Then came the Western Michigan game.  Murray missed two extra point attempts and looked horrible.  Maybe it was the cold weather.  Maybe it was the end of a long freshman season.  Maybe it was simply a side effect of the general malaise that had afflicted that team on that day.  It doesn't matter; it was an enormous step back for a player who had taken a siginficant step forward in the prior 11 games.

Austin Signor transferred to Eastern Illinois last week, which would generally leave the position for Murray.  However, there are still questions about Murray's leg strength and general competence.  The sheer number of points given up in missed kicks last season by Iowa's placekickers - especially in close losses to Iowa State, Wisconsin, and WMU - was staggering.  Ferentz will be looking for consistency and competence; if Murray doen't show either, he'll be replaced fast.

Trent Mossbrucker (6'0", 190, Fr.) - If Ferentz were convinced Daniel Murray was the answer, would he have used a scholarship on Mossbrucker, a 2-star kicker from Mooresville, Indiana?  The Mossbrucker articles are virtually identical: Iowa's not getting a kicker; it's getting an athlete.  Mossbrucker was a high school quarterback, and a damn good one at that.  He set Mooresville High records for career completions (529) and yards (4,208).  ""If he were 6-3 or 6-4, there's no doubt in my mind," said his high school coach, "he would have been recruited heavily as a quarterback."  A kicker who can run and throw?  Someone dig up the Hayden Fry Book o' Exotics!

Oh, by the way, he can kick.  He was 8/11 on field goals (his Rivals.com highlight reel shows some from over 40 yards) and 47/48 on PAT attempts.  He also put more than 2/3 of his kickoffs in the end zone.  There's no telling exactly how this competition will play out, but Murray is far from a certainty.

Ryan Donahue - Given Murray's lack of leg strength and Mossbrucker's inexperience, Donahue will almost certainly handle kickoffs.  That being said, Donahue is curiously listed as "punter/placekicker" on the newest roster, and the recruiting sites loved his high school placekicking numbers.  Ferentz has never had a punter/placekicker for any extended period of time, but it's not out of the question.

Kick Returners

Derrell Johnson-Koulianos (6'1", 205, Soph.) - He did it last year (22 returns, 23.7 YPR).  He's back this year.  He's fast and elusive.  Good enough for me.  He could get moved out if he becomes too important to the offense, but there's a far smaller chance of getting killed when returning kicks than when returning punts.

Paul Chaney, Jr. (5'9", 170, Soph.) - See DJK, only he's smaller and faster.  Last year, he returned 13 kicks for an average of 18.0 YPR.

Punt Returners

Colin Sandeman (6'1", 200, Soph.) - Again, he did it last season (12 returns, 7.7 YPR).  He's got some speed.  He's far enough down the depth chart to avoid short-circuiting the offense when he's inevitably crushed on a would-be fair catch.  Seriously, I don't know how punt returners do it.

Andy Brodell (6'3", 200, Sr.) - He did it for 2+ seasons and did it well (career average of 12.6 YPR), but now he might be too valuable to make into a human missile target.

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