It's about that time again. For the next three 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 where we are most certain, and ending with the position of which we are least certain. To date:
Tonight: Special Teams
In this space last year, we lamented the apparent downfall of Iowa special teams, which had devolved from "game-changing" to "barely mentionable" over the past 3 seasons. Gone were players like Sean Considine and Ed Hinkel, guaranteed to provide a spark on special teams when necesary. Consistency in the kicking game had long since left the station, slowly eroded over the course of Kyle Schlicher's career and hitting bottom with the two-headed Murray/Signor terrormonster in 2007. We hoped special teams would improve, if only because they couldn't possibly get worse.
Turns out the Reneissance was here, and we didn't even see it coming.
Two special teams plays set the tone for the 2008 season. Andy Brodell's punt return touchdown againt Iowa State announced the resurrection of the punt return team and ensured Iowa wouldn't endure another early-season hiccup against the Cyclones. Daniel Murray's field goal clinched the biggest Iowa win in over a decade and set off a string of wins that built confidence for 2009. It was the beginning of the resurrection; hopefully, it continues this year.
Ryan Donahue (#5, 6'3", 180, Junior) - It's too bad Donahue doesn't have a name like a space alien; he might actually get the respect he deserves. No offense to Mesko, who is quite good, but Donahue's numbers compare favorably with the Space Emperor: Fifty punts for an average of 41.6 yards, 19 downed inside the 20 to 7 touchbacks, and improving consistency. Those statistics (aside from the number of punts, which is out of the punter's hands) are nearly identical to Mesko's numbers as a sophomore. He's improved drastically over his first two years, from shankapotomus as a freshman to all-conference as a sophomore. Two more years of improvement and a name change, and we might have something.
Daniel Murray (#1, 5'10", 185, Junior) - If you were within a mile of Kinnick Stadium or a block of a pro-Hawkeye household on November 8, you probably heard screaming. No, not after the field goal (though there certainly was screaming after the field goal). The screaming began before the field goal, when Ferentz benched a kicker who was 13/15 for the season in favor of a walk-on who missed a 35-yard attempt against Pitt and hadn't kicked a field goal since. Five minutes later, all was forgotten in a soccer slide and a sea of humanity, and the oft-maligned Murray entered the Rob Houghlin wing of the Iowa football hall of fame.
There is no denying Murray has the stronger leg. He handled the kickoffs throughout the season, and kicked every long field goal Iowa attempted. In fact, despite beating out Murray for the placekicking spot by week 5, Mossbrucker didn't attempt a field goal over 39 yards last season, and Murray repeatedly showed he had the leg - if not the accuracy - to get the ball to the goalposts from over 50 yards. If that range outweighs his long-documented placement problems, Murray will probably retain the top line.
Trent Mossbrucker (#8, 6'0", 220, Sophomore) - How Mossbrucker lost the starting job last season remains a mystery. When he split field goal duties with Murray early in the season, Mossbrucker proved to be more consistent than his competitor. After Murray's miss against Pitt, the race was effectively over. Mossbrucker made 8 of 9 attempts in his 5 weeks as the undisputed starter. The longest of these field goals was just 35 yards, however, and a shank from 30 yards against Illinois eventually cost Iowa a road win. We're left to wonder if the coaches' lack of confidence in Mossbrucker's leg led to the ill-fated 4th and 2 from the Michigan State 21 that cost Iowa another.
As we said last season, Ferentz would not have burned a scholarship on Mossbrucker if he was confident in Murray, and there is still a chance that Mossbrucker takes the top line eventually. Building a little leg strength over the offseason would certainly go a long way toward that goal.
The Punt Returner
Colin Sandeman - When Brodell went down injured four games into the 2007 season, Sandeman assumed the duties as punt returner. He filled in during garbage time last season, as well. His experience dictates his position here. His stats leave us hoping the position goes to someone else. Sandeman averaged only 7.7 yards per return as a freshman, and an even more benign 6.0 last year. There has been talk from the staff of the need for more yardage from the kick return team. If Sandeman eventually is the punt returner, let's only hope the staff's focus extends to the punt returner, as well.
The Kick Returners, We Think (Actually, We Have No Idea)
Paki O'Meara - He returned two kicks last season for a total of 31 yards, but he's sitting at the top of the most recent depth chart. PAKIBOMB is a special teams dynamo, but probably not the answer for a better kick return game.
Paul Chaney, Jr. - Returned kicks as a freshman to mixed results. Didn't do much of anything as a sophomore, either as a receiver or a returner. I would normally believe he's on his way out, but Ferentz has repeatedly praised the leap forward his sprinter made during spring track. If his newfound commitment extends to the football field, he's too fast to not find a spot. With receiver stacked, the most likely place would be as a kick returner.
Brandon Wegher - Has been told by the coaches he could well be returning kicks this season. Given that statement, the lack of returners on the returning roster, and the hype surrounding the Sioux City Heelan product, that's probably enough to make him a favorite.
Jewel Hampton - He's on top of the depth chart right now, but (unless the staff is completely comfortable with Jeff Brinson at halfback) it would be suicide to send your starting halfback - the only player on your team with significant experience in the backfield - to get speared by kamikaze kickoff teams filled with underclassmen looking to make a name for themselves and get some playing time. Quite frankly, Ferentz is nowhere near that crazy.