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The Epilogue, Part 5: The Special Teams

So long, JB.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
So long, JB. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
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Departures, in Order of Importance

1. Eric Guthrie, P; Replaced All-Big Ten punter Ryan Donahue with solid results: his 41.7 yard average was good for 47th best in the nation and 2nd best in the Big Ten (behind Nebraska). He pinned 18 kicks inside the 20-yard line and he (and his coverage) forced 22 fair catches. There was a bad punt here and there, but for the most part Eric Guthrie did quite an admirable job in his one year as starting punter.

2. Jordan Bernstine, KR; When healthy, Bernstine was Iowa's leading kick returner and he too had pretty solid numbers: 30 returns for 713 yards and a 23.8 yard average, good for 7th best among returners in the Big Ten. (As a team, Iowa was also 7th best in the Big Ten in kickoff returns.) Although he came close a few times (most notably against Indiana) Bernstine never broke a return for a touchdown.

What's Left, Also in Order of Importance

1. Mike Meyer, K; Meyer regressed from his efforts a year ago (he made 14/17 kicks in 2010, but just 14/20 in 2011), with a particularly ghastly showing against Minnesota (0/2, including a 24-yard miss). He started brightly, making his first seven kicks in a row in 2011, but faltered after that, making just seven of his remaining thirteen field goal attempts. His kickoffs also underwelmed: he had the fewest touchabcks of any kicker in the league (4) and his 63.1 yard average was good for just 7th in the conference. On the bright side, no blocked or missed extra points (44/44) this year!

2. Jonny Mullings, P; So long as Kirk Ferentz remains head coach here, field position figures to remain a critical part of the equation for Iowa, so having a quality punter will remain important. Mullings is the most experienced option available, having redshirted in 2010 and sat behind Guthrie last year. Unfortunately, the early reviews of our favorite Aussie heartthrob have not been kind; his release is, by most accounts, painfully slow -- which is a recipe for block city in actual football games.

3. Micah Hyde, PR; Hyde was Iowa's "leading" punt returner in 2011, with 13 returns for 106 yards. Yes -- 13 whole returns, basically one a game. No wonder Iowa finished dead last in the Big Ten in opponent punting. Hyde had a long return of 30 (in the UL-Monroe game, I believe), so his other 12 returns went for a whopping 76 yards. Mind you, as uninspiring as Hyde's numbers were, they were still far from the worst in the Big Ten (his 8.2 yard average was actually tied for 4th best in the conference). Of course, as that opponent punting stat hints at, the biggest problem with Hyde wasn't the punts he actually tried to return -- it was the ones he just let sail overhead, gifting the other team a few extra yards on each kick. I was all-in on the Hyde4PuntReturner idea last fall (his interception returns suggested the sort of skills that would fit well at punt returner), but after last season's yawn-inducing results, I wouldn't be opposed to a new face back there in 2012.

4. Kevonte Martin-Manley, KR; KMM was Iowa's second-best kick returner after Bernstine in 2011; he had four returns for 82 yards (20.5 yard average). I suppose that makes him the nominal favorite to be the top kick returner in 2012, although I'm not sure that means much given the tiny sample size. I wouldn't mind seeing a little more of what he can do in the return game in 2012, though.

5. Keenan Davis, KR; Davis was Iowa's third-leading kick returner in 2011, although he had very little to do back there -- just 4 returns for 78 yards (19.5 yard average). Whether he'll remain back there in 2012 as he ascends to the WR1 role on the depth chart is unclear, but so far there's been little to suggest that he's a difference-maker in the kick return game (he also returned 9 kicks for 175 yards, a 19.4 yard average, in 2010).

6. Jordan Canzeri, KR; Canzeri was also Iowa's third-leading kick returner in 2011 with identical stats to Davis -- 4 returns for 78 yards (19.5 yard average). On the other hand, Canzeri's skillset seems well-suited to kick returns and four returns isn't much of a sample size. It would be a little unusual to see the likely RB1 also be a starting kickoff returner (although I remember Fred Russell doing it at times), but since next year figures to be a RB-by-committee year anyway (unless, of course, we just give Barkley Hill 20-25 carries a game and make him A-Rob 2.0), it's unlikely his projected RB workload would prevent him from being a potential factor in the return game.

7. Marshall Koehn, K; The only one of Iowa's five projected kickers/punters not expected to be on scholarship in 2012, Koehn is a preferred walk-on from local prep powerhouse Solon who joined a year ago and redshirted in 2011. He's supposed to have a booming leg (he had touchbacks on 45 of 82 kickoffs as a HS senior) and should be an option to handle kickoff duties at least, although with Meyer's inconsistency in 2011, placekicking duties could be up for grabs as well.

8. Connor Kornbrath, K/P; We typically haven't profiled incoming freshmen in this section of the Epilogue series, but I'll make an exception here since 1) prospective punters don't seem like much of a risk to renege on a verbal commitment and 2) there's an excellent chance that Kornbrath is our starting punter in 2012. As noted above, Mullings is the most experienced punter on campus, but his advantage there could well be negated by that slow kicking motion; if Mullings isn't able to solve that flaw in his game, I don't think it will take much for Kornbrath to establish himself as the starting punter.

9. Damon Bullock, KR; Bullock saw limited action as a kick returner in 2011 (2 returns for 43 yards, or a 21.5 yard average), but he figures to have as good a shot as anyone to get regular kick return action in 2012.

10. Jordan Cotton / Don Shumpert / Torrey Campbell / Jordan Lomax, PR/KR; If it wasn't already clear by now, it should be: the returner gigs should be pretty wide open in 2012. Hyde didn't cover himself in glory at PR and no one has stood out at KR, either, meaning there should be opportunities aplenty for guys who can reliably field the ball (the most important skill) and run well after the catch. We don't know much about any of these guys in the returner context, but they're speedy guys and many of them had return experience in HS. They've got a shot.

11. John Wienke, QB/P; Don't laugh -- there's a good chance he would have punted in a game in 2011 if Guthrie had gotten injured and depending on the progress (and health) of Mullings and Kornbrath, he might find himself the last man standing at P in 2012. Hey, it's not as if he's likely to get many reps at QB2.

12. Trent Mossbrucker, K; As of now, Mossbrucker is still on the team (and on scholarship), so for the sake of being complete, I'll list him here. But considering that he's basically been locked in a proverbial closet since the early part of the 2010 season and hasn't been able to get a whiff of action despite Meyer's occasional struggles, I wouldn't bet on him seeing the field again in 2012.

Three Signs of Hope

1. Hey, Kaeding struggled too. We remember Kaeding for his Groza Award-winning brilliance in his junior year (as well as his equally brilliant, but Groza Award-denied senior year), but it wasn't always "Nate is Great" time during his Iowa tenure. He went 14/22 on field goals as a freshman and 12/16 as a sophomore; in fact, through two years Mike Meyer has slightly better numbers than Kaeding: 28/37 to 26/38. College kickers tend to get better with more experience, so perhaps the growing pains we've endured from Meyer in 2010 and 2011 will pay off in fine seasons in 2012 and 2013.

2. We're due. This is, admittedly, not the most statistically sound or intellectually compelling reason. But isn't it possible that after multiple years of average or worse special teams play, Iowa rediscovers its special teams brilliance in 2012? Meyer drills field goals reliably, Kornbrath/Mullings pin opposing teams deep, a few players emerge as dynamite return men and, hell, we even remember how to block a kick again. I mean, it could happen, right?

3. ??? Look, I got nothing. Stats, recent history, and returning experience don't give us a whole lot of room for optimism when it comes to special teams. Blind faith is just about all we've got right now.

Three Reasons for Panic

1. These are not new problems. Kickoff coverage has been an issue for several years. Anemic punt returns are nothing new. Outside of DJK's efforts in 2009 and 2010, kickoff returns have been pretty average (or worse) as well. Missteps in the placekicking game are also nothing new and onside kicks and fake field goals and punts have hurt Iowa on several occasions over the past few seasons. 2011 wasn't an aberration in terms of special teams play, it was just more of the same below-average special teams play that we've become accustomed to from Iowa lately.

2. Inexperienced punting is not winning. Over the last few years, Iowa has had the benefit of experience at the punter position; Donahue shook off an occasionally rocky freshman season to become a (mostly) reliable and deadly punter in his final three years, often flipping field position for Iowa. Guthrie had the benefit of learning behind Donahue for several years, and while he lacked game reps before 2011, he had a lot of practice experience to fall back on. Entering 2012, Iowa doesn't have anyone with significant game reps or practice experience to turn to, just a redshirt sophomore, a true freshman, and a senior who spends most of his time as a back-up QB. Punting could be a bit of an adventure this year.

3. Goddamn onside kicks. Did you know Iowa was the only team in the Big Ten to allow an opponent to recover an onside kick? (They also recovered three other onside attempts from their opponents, so it wasn't all bad news on this front, but still.) Iowa's issues with "surprise" onside kicks and fake field goals and punts is twofold: they remain far too vulnerable to having their opponents use those plays against them as well as far too conservative themselves to properly exploit those types of plays against opponents. For a team like Iowa that spends so much time living in the margins and playing so many close games, special teams plays can be a critical swing factor and our inability to make big special teams plays in our favor has been (and likely will continue to be) very costly.

Three Things That Could Change Everything

1. AUSSIE AUSSIE AUSSIE OI OI OI. Maybe Mullings gets his slow release issues sorted out and is able to start booming punts and all of a sudden Iowa has its own version of LSU's Brad Wing (another Aussie import whose seemingly cannon-fired punts changed many a game for the Tigers).

2. We find the 02-04 pages of the special teams playbook. Since there's more than one special teams coach and because special teams itself comprises so many different moving parts, it's hard to point the finger of blame at just one or two specific individuals for the recent unimpressive performances. Suffice to say, it's been a collective effort. But once upon a time Iowa had good special teams (most notably, 2002-2004) and the coaches who've been in charge during the recent mediocrity were also in charge then. Perhaps they can find the pages of the playbook that taught how to block kicks, make big returns, and turn special teams from a disadvantage into a game-changing advantage.

3. Someone emerges at KR/PR. Given the difficulties the Iowa offense has moving the ball at times, any help they can get from the return units would be much appreciated. Even if whoever emerges at punt returner and kick returner isn't able to actually take returns back for touchdowns (although that would be very, very nice), if they can just reliably field kicks and get 5-10 more yards than we've been getting out of our return men, then it would give the offense some welcome relief. Hopefully a few of the dozen options Iowa has in the return game emerge as genuine threats this year.

Dartboard Guess

More of the same. I hope I'm wrong, but there's just nothing tangible around which to base a belief that Iowa's special teams will turn into a dynamic, game-changing unit in 2012. I think the placekicking will be a little bit more consistent in 2012, but the punting will be a little less consistent -- and we'll still struggle to get touchbacks in kickoffs, while kickoff coverage will remain mediocre. Kick and punt returns will be slightly better, but still nothing remarkable. We won't block any kicks, either, and we'll concede a fake (field goal or punt) to someone. Third time will be the charm on those "surprise" onside kicks, though.