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Iowa Football 2020 Position Previews: Specialists

Punting is winning in Iowa City, but who will be the Hawkeyes’ punter in 2020?

Iowa v Nebraska
The Iowa specialists are led by the best kicker in the nation.
Photo by Steven Branscombe/Getty Images

As the 2020 football draws closer, we’ll be counting down the weeks by previewing each of Iowa’s position groups for the upcoming season. While there are still question marks around practice schedules, whether fans will be in the stands and now which coaches will be on staff, the roster is largely set. We’ll take a look at who has come and gone from each group and who projects where.

We kick things off where any self respecting team would start: the specialists. Because this is still Iowa and punting is winning, damnit.

The Iowa specialists in 2019 were nearly as good as you could ever ask from a team. Kicker Keith Duncan was the rightful Groza Award winner as the nation’s top kicker and return specialist Ihmir Smith-Marietta led the conference in return yard average. Punting was solid winning and nobody noticed the long snapper or holder, which is precisely what you want out of those positions (unless, of course, you’re running the polecat).

As we look to 2020, Iowa has some key players returning, but Hawkeye fans will also see some new faces in key roles (cough, punter, cough cough).

Key Departures

In 2019, Iowa went back to the graduate transfer well for a punter after having tremendous success with summersault officianado Ron Coluzzi. Last season, it was Aussie-born Arizona State grad Michael Sleep-Dalton. Sleep-Dalton had a very solid year for the Hawkeyes averaging 41.7 yards per punt on 58 punts.

While the Hawkeyes have been successful in landing and utilizing graduate transfer punters, the unfortunate side effect of tapping that market is the starters are only in town for one year. As Iowa turns to 2020, they’ll need to replace the departed Sleep-Dalton.

Beyond punter, Iowa will be breaking in a new long snapper as senior Jackson Subbert graduated this spring. As mentioned, Subbert was all you could want from a long snapper provided you aren’t looking to run some exotic fakes. Iowa didn’t attempt the polecat in 2019 and Subbert performed the thankless task of safely delivering the ball to the punter and holder all season with absolutely zero fanfare. Iowa should be so lucky to see the say the same about 2020.

On the receiving end many of those snaps was holder Colten Rastetter, who also served as backup punter. Rastetter, like Subbert, was a senior in 2019 and went largely unnoticed on the year when he wasn’t beating kicker Keith Duncan at rock/paper/scissors.

Key Additions

While Iowa added plenty of talent in the offseason, there wasn’t a huge need for scholarship specialists. The Hawkeyes have been in the habit of stockpiling long snappers, kickers and punters in essentially every class, typically of the walk-on variety.

The one exception to note in the class of 2020, however, is punter Tory Taylor. Taylor was a late addition to the class and, like Sleep-Dalton before him, hails from Australia. The Hawkeyes actually became aware of Taylor thanks to Sleep-Dalton, who knew the 22-year old Taylor from Pro Kick Australia, where each had trained. Taylor is a big punter at 6’4” and 225 pounds and has a chance to compete for the starting job right away.

Key Returners

While the idea of breaking in a new punter isn’t terribly exciting for Iowa fans who have grown to appreciate the finer things in life, which is to say good punting, the idea of returning the best kicker in the nation certainly is.

Anyone who watched college football in 2019 knows Keith Duncan was the best in college football and his place in Hawkeye History was cemented with a kiss on Black Friday.

In 2019, Duncan was a consensus First Team All-American and the Big Ten’s Kicker of the Year. He led the nation with 29 made field goals, which set Iowa and Big Ten Conference single-season records. On the year, he was 29 of 34 (85%) and 14 of 18 (78%) from beyond 40 yards.

Duncan will be working with a new long snapper and holder as mentioned previously. Though Ryan Gersonde, who was the backup holder in 2019, does return.

In the return game, the Hawkeyes have dynamic playmaker Ihmir Smith-Marsette back for another year. He was the Big Ten’s return specialist of the year in 2018 and was a preseason All-American a season ago. He led the Big Ten at 29.6 yards per return in 2019 and will look to build off of his electric performance in the Holiday Bowl won over USC in 2020.

The punt return spot doesn’t lose anyone to graduation, though it’s more open than kick returner. Nico Ragaini and Max Cooper both took shots on the role in 2019 and both are back in 2020. Whether they earn the job remains to be seen.

Projected Starters

Projecting starters for games in September is difficult in early June. It’s even more difficult when the Hawkeyes didn’t have the benefit of spring practice or an open practice/spring game this year. But you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that Keith Duncan and Ihmir Smith-Marsette are locked in.

Beyond those two, there are question marks. Austin Spiewak is a walk-on long snapper who’s entering his fifth year at Iowa. He’ll face competition from a redshirt freshman and true freshman and seems like the safest bet to win the job.

The holder gig is likely to go to whoever wins the punting job. Ryan Gersonde has some hype but has battled injuries his entire career. While he has some experience both as punter and holder, incoming freshman Tory Taylor will actually be older. If Gersonde can get healthy it will be a battle and there’s the potential the ongoing COVID-19 travel restrictions limit Taylor’s time with the team before fall, but he still seems like a decent bet to win the job.

It’s also worth noting that while Duncan is clearly the place kicker, Caleb Shudak was Iowa’s kickoff man in 2019. He entered the transfer portal this offseason. Howe, he’s still listed on the official roster as of this writing and engaged in the recent return to Twitter we saw from Iowa players. If on campus this fall, look for him to resume kickoff duties.

That leaves punt return duties. As mentioned, Iowa tried a couple hands there a season ago. Both Ragaini and Cooper have been serviceable. The Hawkeyes also have some younger guys who could challenge for the spot and get some early playing time. Daraun McKinney is a RS freshman defensive back who showed great vision and playmaking ability as a prep. There’s also the added benefit of having a DB returning punts in the event of a fake. Dane Belton, who earned time in the Cash role a season ago, is another younger DB who spent signifying as a return man in the prep ranks.

PK: Keith Duncan

KO: Caleb Shudak

LS: Austin Spiewak

P: Tory Taylor

H: Tory Taylor

PR: Nico Ragaini

KR: Ihmir Smith-Marsette