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THE PROLOGUE 2015: SPECIAL TEAMS

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Iowa football. Punting. This is what we live for.

Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

When Kirk Ferentz hired former Minnesota Vikings assistant Chris White as special teams coordinator prior to the 2013 season there was cautious optimism that maybe, just maybe, he was the guy who could turn it around.  Maybe the Hawkeyes wouldn't fall for the fake punt, the onside kick or any other high risk, high reward play call that Kirk Ferentz labeled "illegal devil magic."

Maybe Iowa would be more disciplined on kick returns and start guys who could kick like Kaeding, Schlicher, Baker, or Donahue. Maybe Iowa's special teams could be seen as a competent instead of the punchline they'd become since Wisconsin, Eastern Illinois, and Minnesota...twice. Maybe Iowa's special teams could be seen as a weapon instead of the Maginot Line they'd become.  Maybe.

Or maybe not.

It's admittedly a small sample size of two seasons, but Iowa's special teams haven't displayed the discipline or changes that some expected. Arguably worse, they've been nothing short of inconsistent. Take a look at the unit rankings from 2013-2014:

2013

2014


Conference Rank

National Rank

Value

Conference Rank

National Rank

Value

Net Punting

6

48

37.46

13

117

33.42

Punt Return Defense

4

24

4.90

14

121

15.13

Punt Returns

1

10

14.04

14

104

5.13

Kickoff Return Defense

8

100

23.28

1

3

16.09

Kickoff Returns

7

55

21.97

9

65

20.69

Notes:

  • Net Punting: Total punting yards, minus 20 yards for each touchback, minus opponent punt return yards, divided by attempts plus blocks.
  • Punt Return Defense: Opponent punt return yards divided by opponent return opportunities.
  • Punt Returns: Punt return yards divided by punt returns.
  • Kickoff Return Defense: Opponent kickoff return yards divided by opponent return opportunities.
  • Kickoff Returns: Kickoff return yards divided by kickoff returns.
  • In 2013, there were 123 ranked FBS teams by the NCAA.
  • In 2014, there were 125 ranked FBS teams by the NCAA.

Whereas Iowa was relatively solid in the area of punting in 2013, their kickoff coverage/returns left something to be desired. 2014 was quite the contrast. Punt statistics were nothing short of a disaster on every front while the kickoff return defense was excellent. Kickoff returns were worse...but we'll blame an illegal forward lateral in a bowl game for that inconvenient statistic.

So what does 2015 hold? Let's talk some special teams.

PUNTER

STARTER: Dillon Kidd, 6'2, 215, Senior.

BACKUP: Marshall Koehn, 6'0, 200, Senior.

It's always concerning when a position battle comes down to an incumbent starter and someone who starts at a different position. And that's exactly what developed this fall until Kidd was named the starter earlier this week. Kidd, who appeared in 11 games last season, was a upgrade from the now departed Connor Kornbrath and tallied one touchback, 19 fair catches, four 50+ yarders and landed 12 inside the 20 on 46 punts.

Unfortunately, there are no records kept for shanks and shoddy situational punting so we'll just generalize and say that the reason punter has been an open competition for the past couple seasons (Ferentz was considering Koehn in 2014 as well) is inconsistency. Kidd was an upgrade to Kornbrath because Connor, to put it politely, wasn't getting the job done. Kidd's biggest issue, like his predecessors, is that he needs to figure out how to reliably punt the ball 40+ yards when Iowa's defense is depending on him. Time will tell on Kidd's progression in his second and final year with the program.

KICKER

STARTER: Marshall Koehn, 6'0, 200, Senior.

BACKUP: Mick Ellis, 5'10, 180, Sophomore.

If you're wondering how Iowa's kickoff defense was so fantastic in 2014, look no further than Marshall Koehn. The senior from Solon accumulated 43 touchbacks on 65 kickoffs and averaged 61.8 yards per kick. With leg strength like that it's easy to see why he's getting a look at punter.  Koehn's leg strength was never in question, though. It was the whole getting the ball through the uprights thing. It seems like ages ago that Koehn started off the season by going 2/5 and had Ferentz going full ABORT ABORT ABORT on the kicking game. Koehn responded to questions about his reliability by going 10/11 the rest of the year and making 4/5 from 40+ yards. Assuming he's earned Ferentz's trust, Koehn should have plenty of opportunities to make his senior season a special one.

PUNT RETURNER

STARTER: Desmond King, 5'11, 200, Junior.

BACKUP: Riley McCarron, 5'9, 186, Junior.

/eyes punt returns stat above

/grimaces

It's worth noting that this piece was originally finished prior to Ferentz's press conference yesterday. Before that, Desmond King and Matt VandeBerg were projected as co-starters. King, for obvious reasons and VandeBerg, as he was the incumbent. On 12 return opportunities, VandeBerg only notched 82 yards, an average of 6.8 yards per return. Surely he would get the nod over Riley McCarron, at least in the backup role, as McCarron averaged a horrendous 1.6 yards per return on eight opportunities. Wrong:

Desmond will be our starting, Desmond King will be the lead guy and Riley McCarron will be the number two guy in the punt game, same thing with kick return. We also have Jonathan Parker, Tevaun, and Jordan Canzeri, those three guys on kick return as well. But we'll start out with King and McCarron.

McCarron and VandeBerg's combined average of 5.13 yards per return was one of the worst in the nation. In comparison, Nebraska, Northwestern, and Purdue averaged 14 yards or better per return.

All things considered, it's easy to understand why King would be named Iowa's punt returner. King's talent as a cornerback was evident as a freshman, but he truly broke out last season, notching three interceptions and returning one for a touchdown. King has the speed, acceleration and (cliché alert) instincts to be a successful return man. Comically, the only notable time that King attempted to field a punt was against Maryland, when he flew in for no apparent reason to cut off McCarron's return and ended up fumbling the ball away.

With McCarron, it's difficult to gauge his effectiveness as a punt returner as his career long is a whopping 11 yards. Or maybe that tells us everything we need to know? In fairness, it's tough to recall McCarron (or VandeBerg for that matter) getting good enough protection to put together a solid return.

KICKOFF RETURNER

STARTER: Desmond King, 5'11, 200, Junior.

BACKUPS: Riley McCarron, 5'9, 186, Junior; Jonathan Parker, 5'8, 185, Sophomore; Tevaun Smith, 6'2, 205, Senior; Jordan Canzeri, 5'9. 192, Senior.

Jonathan Parker seemed like the logical choice for kick returner as he averaged 22.1 yards per return on 24 opportunities and was named first-team Freshman All-Big Ten by BTN.com. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. This offseason Parker was transitioned to wide receiver, a move that made sense considering he was buried on the running back depth chart and his body is better suited at wide receiver. If there were a comparison to be made it would be that Parker is like Paul Chaney Jr. but with the ability to actually see the wedge. He'll have to wrestle the spot from King.

Smith and Canzeri are known commodities to Iowa fans and interesting choices as possible return men. Canzeri put up solid numbers in 2014, averaging 19.3 yards per return in shared duties with Parker. Canzeri's elusiveness and vision are his greatest strengths, but coaches have to be concerned about his durability, especially considering he's the #2 running back this season.

If Tevaun Smith is half the playmaker we make him out to be, he could be a monster of a return man. Like, DJK in 2010 good. Remember when Smith cut across the entire length of the field against UNI, dodged multiple tacklers and gained an extra 15-20 yards? That's the type of ability that will have opposing kickers squibbing the ball.

With Koehn, Iowa has a reliable option at kicker. Punting, punt defense, and punt returns were nothing short of a disaster in 2014 and are one of the greatest areas of concern heading into Saturday. Iowa needs a reliable punter, a coverage team that won't over pursue and a return man who presents more of a threat than possibly poking someone's eye out as he waves furiously just prior to fair catching.

King will have plenty of opportunities to show that he can be effective and should be given a long leash considering the alternatives at punt returner. Even if things don't work out on kickoffs, there's a reliable backup down the line in Parker. In all, special teams has a lot to prove in 2015. With Koehn booming kicks, Kidd entering his senior season and King doing the returning, here's to hoping that they can show the improvement and consistency that we've been expecting since Ferentz shook up staff and hired White.