Caleb Shudak and Charlie Jones were two of the Iowa Hawkeyes most important players last season. Shudak went 24/28, including perfect performances in tight games against Nebraska, Minnesota, and Penn State. Jones returned a kick for a touchdown to spring some momentum against Illinois and was a general pest as a punt returner.
So, there’s a lot to replace.
The main event
Tory Taylor has been an absolute weapon for the Hawkeyes in his two years as Iowa’s punter. His total yardage was only surpassed by Matt Araiza. Part of that is he had 80 punts. But he also punted it for 46.1 yards-per each time, so that helps, too.
The Aussie has had his downs learning the game of American football with a kick off the ground and a dropped snap but overall, he’s been fantastic. One area for him to improve is the number of times he’ll kick it into the end zone. He had 13 touchbacks last season which adjusted Iowa’s net punting down to 32nd in the country.
He’ll have one more year after this, should he choose to accept it.
The other returnee
True sophomore Luke Elkin took over as long snapper against Iowa State after an errant snap on a field goal which led to a miss. He was excellent the rest of the way and is likely to be the guy for the next three seasons.
The main reason for this position group being last is simply just how unknown the kickers are. Sophomore Aaron Blom has backed up both Keith Duncan & Shudak after being a first-team all-state kicker in Oskaloosa, IA. His HS field goal percentages were a roller coaster, but he holds school records in many categories (including season FG percentage). I’ll chalk that up to playing on a team who didn’t kick many field goals. He missed four of 151 extra points. He was also a linebacker.
Drew Stevens arrived on campus in spring out of Duncan’s former haunt (Charlotte, NC area). His kicking percentage more or less mirrors Blom’s but the Iowa roster lists his kickback percentage among notable stats (85% his senior season). He also has some length, in game, with a couple 50+ yarders to his name.
Anyways, what makes this race most notable was just how sideways the two were in the spring practice. They combined for five-plus misses in April but flipped that performance on its head this past weekend. 15/15 combined. That’ll do.
Like spring, it is just one practice of 30+ they’ve had since the end of last season so there’s reason to be skeptical of the perfection, especially considering how great the conditions were on Saturday. But it’s a heckuva lot better to have a performance like Saturday’s than a performance like April’s three weeks away from the season starting.
My prediction: we see duties split with Stevens kicking off and taking long FGs while Blom gets first crack on the shorter ones. I wouldn’t be surprised if either had a short leash, though.
LeVar Woods had Iowa ready to go in spring with multiple guys practicing as punt and kickoff returner alongside Jones. The list has dwindled to three now, in Riley Moss, Arland Bruce IV, and Cooper DeJean. Each offer interesting possibilities, with ABIV & DeJean being elite all-purpose weapons in high school, and the speed Moss has, more generally.
One of these is not like the other, though, as Bruce is an integral part of Iowa’s offense and losing him while returning a punt or kick would be devastating considering Iowa’s depth at wideout. Personally, I’m a little surprised Kaden Wetjen’s name isn’t in more the mix. He returned kicks for Iowa Western and punt returner has been a great way for walk-ons to make a name for themselves on Iowa’s roster. Gavin Williams helped return kicks and is likely to be in a similar role this season.
No matter what, I do trust the infrastructure around whomever is back there. Iowa’s seen an uptick in return touchdowns with a variety of guys since Woods has taken over as special teams coordinator. While Jones’ fearlessness is unique, the system he was operating in is replicable.
This is worth noting:
LeVar Woods definitely trolling out there, had Cooper DeJean at holder for 2 snaps. (Both FGs were good from 31.)— Chad Leistikow (@ChadLeistikow) August 13, 2022
A hallmark of Iowa’s resurgence has been impressive special teams. Though there’s a lot lost from last year’s roster there are reasons to be optimistic about the prospects ahead of the 2022 season.