Charlie Jones fielded virtually every kick and punt for the Hawkeyes last season en route to being named the Big Ten Return Specialist of the Year. However, it was one of the rare kicks Jones did not field in 2021 that solidified his importance to the team. Trailing Wisconsin 17-0 late in the 2nd quarter, the Hawkeyes managed to force a Badger punt and sent senior Max Cooper back to receive it in place of the injured Jones. With three timeouts remaining, Iowa had seemingly earned another opportunity to put points on the board before halftime and chip into Wisconsin’s lead. Instead, Cooper muffed the punt, the Badgers recovered it, and Wisconsin converted this extra possession into a field goal to give them a 20-0 lead at the break. The next time the Badgers punted, Jones was back to receive it. Iowa’s coaching staff had learned their lesson: their best chance for victory came with Charlie Jones as their return man.
Unfortunately, the Hawkeyes are set to experience life without Jones far sooner than they anticipated. Charlie Jones caught Iowa fans off guard on Wednesday when he announced his intention to enter the transfer portal only four months after declaring that he had “unfinished business” that would compel him to return to Iowa. Whether Jones defects to Purdue or Notre Dame or lands elsewhere, Iowa will lose an valuable contributor to both its offense and special teams. While the Hawkeyes should be able to make up for Jones’ production at receiver thanks to the return of Keagan Johnson, Arland Bruce IV, and Nico Ragaini, finding a true replacement for him at kick and punt returner has suddenly become one of the most important requirements for fall camp.
How productive was Jones as a return man? During his two seasons wearing black and gold, Jones compiled 508 punt return yards and 635 kick return yards and became one of only three Hawkeyes in program history to return both a punt and kick for a touchdown. Jones was the only player in the nation to average over 7.0 yards per return on 30+ punts in 2021, led the Big Ten in punt return yards per game in both 2020 and 2021, and returned more punts (37) than any player in college football last season. He was dynamic with the ball in his hands and, just as importantly, was sure handed when fielding punts. Jones helped spark an inconsistent Hawkeye offense by regularly gifting it with short fields, and his 100-yard kick return against Illinois helped jolt the struggling team back to life and propel Iowa to a critical conference win.
Iowa may not find a single player who can match Jones as both a punt and kick returner, but can the Hawkeyes cobble together the pieces to replicate his production? If so, which players could be in line to handle return duties in 2022?
One of the most intriguing names is sophomore defensive back Cooper DeJean who returned one kick for 20 yards last season. DeJean is one of the best athletes on the team and boasts a high school highlight reel that resembles a game of Madden being played with the tackle sliders set to zero. The electric defensive back compiled multiple return touchdowns as a prep star, and slotting him as a kick/punt returner would be an excellent way to manufacture touches for one of Iowa’s most dynamic young players. Depending on whether DeJean can lock down a starting spot at either safety or Ca$h, he could be a strong candidate to secure one or both of the return man jobs.
Two other young defensive backs could also emerge as contenders to for the open kick/punt return positions. Incoming freshman TJ Hall returned multiple punts for touchdowns during his high school career, was named his conference’s Special Teams Player of the Year during his senior campaign, and was specifically mentioned by special teams coach LeVar Woods as someone who could be in the mix this fall. Super recruit Xavier Nwankpa could also be an interesting option. Nwankpa is one of the best athletes the Hawkeyes have recruited in several years, is more likely than Hall to carve out regular playing time on defense to justify burning his redshirt, and showed flashes in his limited action as a return man at Southeast Polk. Nwankpa may be less of a natural fit as a return man than Hall or DeJean but working him into the return game could be a good way to maximize his freshman year reps should he fail to edge out Iowa’s bevy of veteran safeties for one of the starting roles.
Iowa also has several wide receivers who could be in the mix. Nico Ragaini led Iowa in punt returns and return yardage as a freshman in 2019 and was actually named as the First-team All-Big Ten punt return specialist by Phil Steele. However, Ragaini occasionally struggled to judge whether he should try to field punts in the air, leading to Iowa losing critical field position and Ragaini losing his starting job to Max Cooper. Whether the rising senior has improved his judgement in this area could dictate whether he gets another shot. However, the more intriguing options for both kick and punt returner lie in Iowa’s stupendous sophomores Keagan Johnson and Arland Bruce IV. Both players boast reliable hands and enough speed and agility to burn opponents in the open field, and Iowa would be wise to consider creative ways to maximize their touches, especially given the inconsistency of the Hawkeye passing game and its heavy reliance on throws to running backs and tight ends. Walk-ons Jamison Heinz and Alec Wick could also work their way into competition with strong performances in fall camp.
One final name to keep an eye on at punt returner is community college transfer Kaleb Wetjen. In two seasons at Iowa Western, Wetjen averaged 15.4 yards per punt return and racked up 875 return yards along with four punts returned for touchdowns. That kind of production is difficult to overlook at any level, and Wetjen could very well follow in Jones’ footsteps by carving out a niche for himself as a return man before parlaying that into a larger role in Iowa’s offense down the line. He may not have the name recognition or hype associated with players like DeJean, Nwankpa, or Johnson, but the smart money says that Wetjen will have a genuine shot to win the starting job this fall.
The loss of Charlie Jones leaves a major hole in Iowa’s special teams, but his decision to enter the transfer portal also creates an opportunity for several intriguing young players to assume a greater role in 2022. Just as Jones stepped up to replace the loss of the dynamic Ihmir Smith-Marsette, so too could one of Iowa’s talented receivers or defensive backs emerge to fill the void left by Jones’ defection. Given the importance of excellent special teams play to Iowa’s success, Hawkeye fans can only hope that an answer emerges by the time the team takes the field on September 3rd.