The Epilogue 2012: The Special Teams

Matthew Holst

2500 words about punting because This! Is! Iowa football!

Departures, in order of Importance

1. John Wienke, P. Wienke had one of the stranger career paths at Iowa; he arrived as a former Michigan recruit and Elite 11 QB, but he left as Iowa's go-to pooch punter. Which is a real thing at Iowa. (Or was this year, at least.) Wienke punted the ball 14 times for 529 yards, good for an unimpressive 37.8 yard average. But again: Wienke was the designated pooch punter. He was always punting from midfield or closer, so the goal was never distance so much as it was "pin them deep." And on that score he did just fine: 9 of those 14 kicks were downed inside the 20-yard line and I recall several that were fielded inside the 10. He did what he was asked to do quite well. It was decidedly odd to see a former quarterback become a punter at the end of his career, but it (more or less) worked; huzzah to finding some value in surprising places. (My biggest regret about the Wienke-as-punter idea was that he was never once used for a fake punt. Alas.)

2. Micah Hyde, PR. Hyde spent the last two years as Iowa's primary punt returner, to the considerable consternation of the Iowa fanbase. Statistically, at least, Hyde wasn't a bad punt returner: his average of 7.4 yards per return ranked 4th in the Big Ten this year (although, as a team, Iowa ranked 8th in punt return average in the Big Ten this year). He never broke a return for a touchdown (or really even threatened to do so), but he also never fumbled. Of course, the stats don't tell the entire story about his punt return tendencies, since they don't capture one of the things that most aggravated Iowa fans about Hyde: his tendency to let a lot of balls bounce by him. Sometimes it really was the right call, but many times fielding the ball would have saved Iowa a few yards in field position. Still, I think Hyde was ultimately just a very average punt returner: neither particularly good, nor particularly bad.

2. Trent Mossbrucker, K. Once upon a time, Trent Mossbrucker was the starting placekicker at Iowa. He seemed destined to hold onto that job and perhaps even challenge some of Kaeding's hallowed records. He earned the job as a true freshman (in 2008) and made 13/15 field goals and 31/33 extra points that year. Then the Penn State game happened. We all know what happened then: before arguably the biggest kick in Iowa football history in the last 20 years, Kirk Ferentz listened to his gut... and his gut said Daniel Murray. Murray took the kick and this happened and there was much rejoicing. Unless you were Trent Mossbrucker, in which case your life pretty much sucked. He missed two extra points the following week, but did make all 7 extra points he attempted in the Minnesota game.

He redshirted in 2009 while Murray retained the starting job, then entered into a dual with Mike Meyer before the 2010 season. Mossbrucker won the job again and went on to convert 13/14 extra points in his first three games (Iowa attempted zero field goals in those games). His last extra point attempt (against Arizona) was blocked... and that was essentially the last time we ever saw Mossbrucker on the field. (Though his Hawkeye Sports bio says he saw time on the kickoff team a few times last year and attempted an onside kick against Nebraska.) Mossbrucker's career was never the same after the 2008 Penn State game. Would he have made the kick that Murray made? Was Ferentz wrong to bench him at that moment? Who knows. (Personally, I think it's unfortunate that that moment seemed to have such a negative impact on Mossbrucker's career... but I also wouldn't change a thing about the end of the 2008 Penn State game, either.) In any event, Mossbrucker's long, star-crossed Iowa career is over now. Farewell, Trent.

What's Left, also in order of importance

1. Mike Meyer, K. Meyer wrested the starting kicker job from Mossbrucker in 2010 and he's never looked back since. After successfully converting 14/17 field goals that year, he regressed a bit in 2011 (14/20), but bounced back with a 17/21 performance in 2012. He started so brightly this year -- 14/15 made field goals, highlighted by his 4/4 performance against Michigan State -- that he was named a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award. The second half of the season was less kind to Meyer, though; he attempted only six field goals in the final six games of the season and made only three. Meyer, like all kickers at Iowa in the last decade, labors under the shadow cast by Nate Kaeding, but he's done a solid job all the same: 45/58 field goals (78%). If he'd had an offense that generated even an average number of opportunities, he likely would have converted over 20 field goals in 2012.

Kickoffs have been one of the areas of Meyer's game that have generated the most frustration among Iowa fans -- he had touchbacks on just 14/135 kickoff attempts (14%) in 2010 and 2011, though that jumped up to 21/51 (41%) this year, thanks in part to the changed kickoff rules. But Meyer's lack of touchbacks seems at least partially by design -- the coaches seem to prefer to have him kick it short of the end zone and let the coverage team try to pin the opponent deep -- so it's hard to fault him too much on that front. Meyer has one season remaining and there's little reason to expect someone to supplant him as the starting kicker -- nor is there any particularly compelling reason to pine for a new kicker. Meyer isn't perfect, but he's good -- and Iowa has far bigger issues to solve before worrying too much about the kicker.

2. Jordan Cotton, KR. There's a widely-held belief that Iowa's special teams have suffered in recent years and while that's true in some ways, kickoff returns haven't really been one of them. Since 2007, Iowa has had a returner rank in the top 5 in the Big Ten in yards per return every year except 2009 (DJK simply didn't have enough returns; his 31.5 yards per return average would have been good for second-best in the Big Ten that year) and 2011 (Bernstine ranked 7th). This year, Cotton led the league with an average of 28.21 yards per return, almost five yards better than the second-best kick returner. He returned two kicks for touchdowns (though one was called back as a result of an utterly needless penalty on Ray Hamilton). Cotton was inconsistent as a wide receiver, but he was consistently brilliant as a kick returner and his work there is a real bright spot for Iowa heading into next season.

3. Connor Kornbrath, P. Kornbrath arrived at Iowa as a moderately-celebrated punter recruit and found himself immediately immersed in a three-way battle with John Wienke and Jonny Mullings for the job of replacing Eric Guthrie. Kornbrath emerged on top and started the entire season (though he gave way to Wienke in pooch punting situations). Unfortunately, the results were not stellar; as seen by this table from MGoBlog:

Mgo_special_teams_medium

So... that's not good. Opponents didn't much in the way of return yards against Iowa -- 22 returns for 97 yards -- but that's mainly because the punts didn't go very long in the first place. Some patience is probably warranted because Kornbrath was a freshman (although Ryan Donahue averaged 41.1 yards per attempt as a freshman in 2007), but that only goes so far. If Iowa is going to rely on field position and special teams to help win games, then they need a punter who can actually, you know, help them win the field position battle. Right now, Kornbrath is not doing that.

4. Marshall Koehn, K. Koehn is the third member of Iowa's Kicker Voltron formation (the Blue Lion, if you will); after a redshirt season in 2011, he sat behind Meyer in 2012 (and was listed ahead of Mossbrucker on the depth chart). Allegedly, he's got a cannon for a leg, but that's pretty much just hearsay at this point since he's never attempted a kick -- kickoff, field goal, extra point, nothing -- at Iowa. We may not see him do anything until 2014.

5. Johnny Mullings, P. Because the only thing better than one scholarship punter is two scholarship punters. (Although Iowa had three scholarship punters in 2012, if you consider Wienke to be a true punter. That sort of scholarship distribution is so surreal it would make me laugh if I wasn't already crying.) Mullings arrived at Iowa with a rep of having a booming leg but poor technique. Three years of coaching have apparently been unable to correct these technical flaws (most crucially, the length of time it takes him to get off a kick), which means he mainly exists as Iowa's charming Australian mascot now.

Three Two Signs of Hope

1. Cotton-Eyed Jordan. Not to rehash what I just wrote a few paragraphs above, but really: Jordan Cotton is very good on kickoff returns. He was the best kick returner by several metrics in the Big Ten in 2012, and ranked 16th nationally. In the kick return game, he's a legitimate game-changer, an exceedingly rare commodity on this Iowa team. If Cotton can maintain his strong level of play from 2012 in the 2013 season, Iowa should get a big boost in terms of starting field position -- and, as we know all too well after this season, the Iowa offense needs all the advantages it can get.

2. The Kicker Did it. As noted above, Mike Meyer is a good kicker -- perhaps even a very good kicker by the standard of college kickers. (Just watch a few other games every Saturday and take note of how many missed field goals you see.) He may not be as otherworldly as Nate Kaeding was for Iowa during his final two years, but he's an effective kicker who can reliably get Iowa points if they can get into scoring range (something they were able to do all too rarely in the back half of the 2012 season). (He did miss three kicks over the last six games, but two of those misses came in the "everything goes wrong" Penn State game and the other was a 42-yard miss in the swirling winds of the Nebraska game.)

Three Two Reasons for Panic

1. Punting is (not) winning. In order to win, Ferentzian football demands that a team win the battles in the margins, the battles for all those "hidden" yards that commentators like to talk about. Punting is a big part of that; the great Iowa defenses of 2008 and 2009 were helped immensely by Ryan Donahue's ability to flip the field position and pin an opponent deep in their own territory, forcing them to cover a lot of ground -- against a very good defense -- to score points. Given that the Iowa defense needs all the help they can get, the weak punts from Kornbrath are even more detrimental. If he can't improve this off-season, Iowa needs to take a hard look at finding someone who can help field position in the punting game -- they can't afford to keep gifting opponents a few extra yards in every punting situation.

2. Two Heads Are Not Better Than One. Darrell Wilson and Lester Erb have shared special teams coaching duties for several years; the results of their efforts mostly speak for themselves. Obviously NCAA rules limit the number of coaches Iowa can have on staff, but it might be worth investigating whether or not some other allocation of coaching resources -- one that frees up the special teams job for one coach to focus on -- would be more effective. Iowa's special teams were improved in 2012, but if Iowa needs exceptional special teams to win at a high level (and we might), then Iowa might need to look at adjustments. So long as the two-headed monster of Wilson and Erb retain control of this side of the ball, it's hard to see from when or where improvement might arrive.

Three Two Things That Could Change Everything

1. Block Party. If Iowa is committed to playing low-scoring games with minimal scoring output from the offense, then they really need to win the battle in the margins and be able to maximize the scoring output they get from alternative sources, such as the defense and (especially) the special teams. Once upon a time, Iowa was brilliant at creating game-changing plays on special teams, blocking kicks and scoring touchdowns. Iowa hasn't blocked a punt or kick for a score since the 2010 game with Eastern Illinois and they haven't blocked a kick in a meaningful game since the 2009 season. If Iowa can figure out some way to regain that mojo, it could provide an enormous boost to Iowa's fortunes in 2013. (A big "if," admittedly.)

2. The Return. Simply put, Iowa needs to get immense performances out of their returners in 2013 in order to improve their scoring output and (potentially) their win-loss record. That's plausible with Cotton on kickoff returns, but someone will need to emerge at punt returner as a legitimate game-changer. Iowa's recruited several speedy, shifty wide receivers and defensive backs in recent years -- can one of them provide the spark Iowa needs in the punt return game? Let's hope so.

Dartboard Guess

I think special teams will be slightly better than it was last year, for the most part. Iowa returns its two best special teams performers from a year ago (Meyer and Cotton) and I believe that additional experience will improve Kornbrath's performance. I'm even cautiously optimistic about one of those wide receivers or defensive backs emerging as a true threat at punt returner. The coverage units were pretty strong last year -- Iowa ranked second in the Big Ten in kickoff coverage, giving up 19.4 yards per return, and second in punt return coverage as well, giving up just 4.4 yards per preturn -- and will hopefully remain so in 2013. The biggest question mark is probably the "x factor" plays like blocked kicks, which are difficult to project. If Iowa can get a few blocks, then this unit might be able to go from good to very good. Either way, of all three units we've profiled in this series, special teams is probably the unit with the least cause for concern.

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