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Iowa Football 2023 Position Previews: Specialists

The specialists will once again be special in Iowa City.

Syndication: HawkCentral
These guys are... special.
Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

When people think about Iowa football, a few things come to mind: a balanced offensive attack tilted toward the running game, a strong, stout defense, and incredible special teams. Punting is winning, after all, and if you’re going to have that sort of mantra, you had better be damn good at punting.

Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, Levar Woods is at the helm as special teams coordinator and as such, the outlook for special teams remains incredibly bright, both in 2023 and beyond.

Projected Starters

P: Tory Taylor

No surprises here as one of the best punters in the nation is back for another season in Iowa City. There were some rumblings Taylor may depart after last season given the limitations on NIL for international athletes (namely that they can only earn and receive NIL dollars in their home country), but the thunder from down under is back for another season in Iowa City and ain’t nobody coming for his job.

A season ago, Taylor averaged 45.4 yards on 82 punts, with 27 punts of 50 yards or more on his way to being named First-team All-America by FWAA, Phil Steele and Pro Football Focus. He was named 1st Team All-Big Ten by the media and is well positioned to improve on those accolades in his final season in Iowa City. Enjoy it while it lasts, folks - Tory Taylor’s leg is a thing of beauty.

K: Drew Stevens

As with Taylor at punter, there is no surprise at place kicker heading into 2023. After winning the starting gig as a freshman in 2022, Drew Stevens earned a scholarship this offseason and is poised to return as the starter in the fall.

Stevens hit 16 of his 18 field goal attempts in his true freshman season for the Hawkeyes and was a perfect 24 for 24 on extra points. More importantly, he was money from inside of 40 yards, finishing 10 for 10 on the season. He also hit both of his attempts from beyond 50 yards, including a career long of 54 against Northwestern.

The impressive freshman season earned Stevens second-team Freshman All-America by College Football News . He was also named 2nd team All-Big Ten by the media while being one of only two freshman semifinalists for the Lou Groza Award. Look for Stevens to again be near-automatic for the Hawkeyes in 2023 and be a real contender for the Groza before his days in Iowa City are over.

LS: Luke Elkin

In keeping with the pattern here, the Hawkeyes are set to return their starting long snapper from a season ago in junior Luke Elkin. With the aforementioned Taylor the returning holder, Iowa will have all of its kicking game specialists back from a season ago.

Since taking over the role of long snapper in 2021, Elkin has been the guy for almost two full seasons now with very few issues. He was named the Hayden Fry Award recipient for special teams in 2022 after earning the Next Man In Award in 2021. Barring injury, look for Elkin to hold down the job both in 2023 and 2024.

KR: Kaleb Johnson

If you haven’t caught by now, it’s time to start paying attention. Levar Woods has everyone back and that should scare opposing coaches. As with the rest of these spots, returning kick returner Kaleb Johnson is back and listed as the starting KR in the spring depth chart.

Now, here’s where we get some slight differences from the rest of the positions already reviewed. Johnson is not only the starting kick returner, but also the starting running back per the depth chart. While he led the team in returns (13) and return yardage (325) in 2022, he was in a definitive timeshare for the majority of the season. Looking forward to 2023, Johnson is the clear bell-cow and having him as the kick return man opens him up to taking extra hits, being worn down sooner and cumulative impacts that are detrimental to an offense much more in need of a spark than the special teams unit.

So, this is a spot where we may see some things shaken up come fall camp. Johnson split return duties a season ago with running mate Gavin Williams, who is no longer with the program. The Hawkeyes have a handful of other highly capable returners on the roster who could all make a run at the starting job in fall camp so keep your eyes and ears open come August.

PR: Cooper DeJean

One such candidate is returning punt returner and all-everything defensive back Cooper DeJean. DeJean is a superstar with the ball in his hands and seems like a prime candidate to get more touches in the return game. While Arland Bruce IV held the starter job at punt returner for much of last season, DeJean was clearly the more talented return specialist and putting him deep on punts allows Phil Parker and Levar Woods some flexibility given he’s already on the field for defense.

As a sophomore, DeJean fielded just 10 punts, almost half the 19 taken by Bruce, but led the team in punt return yards with 165. That 16.5 yards per punt return average was a full 10 yards per return more than Bruce and double the official Big Ten leader in yards per return, Michigan State’s Jayden Reed (DeJean didn’t qualify due to the volume of returns requirement).

No doubt DeJean is the frontrunner to lead the league in the category this year as he takes the full time starting role at punt returner for the Hawkeyes. The only real question is whether Phil Parker is ok exposing DeJean to more hits as the team’s kick returner as well.

The Backups

P: Max Hoskins

While Tory Taylor is expected to take every snap of 2023 at punter, the Hawkeyes do have another punter on the roster should things go sideways. Max Hoskins is a redshirt freshman from Oregon who joined the program as a walk-on last fall. He didn’t see any game action as a true freshman during the redshirt year and is expected to continue using this season as as time to prepare for a competition in 2024 with whoever the Hawkeyes end up signing in the class.

K: Aaron Blom

Backing up Drew Stevens is redshirt junior Aaron Blom. The Oskaloosa native lost the competition with Stevens a year ago after he started the year 1-3 on field goals. Despite making his lone PAT against Iowa State, Blom went 1-2 in the season opener against SDSU and missed what would have been a game-tying attempt from 48 yards against Iowa State.

Blom had been advertised as having a bigger leg than Stevens so it’s possible we see him take some work as the team’s kickoff specialist, but it’s more likely he serves as a solid backup option to Stevens if anything should happen.

LS: Liam Reardon

Similar to Blom, Liam Reardon is poised to serve as the team’s backup long snapper for another season. The redshirt junior from the Chicago-land has served in that role behind starter Luke Elkin for the last two years and is expected to remain a depth option in 2023.

KR: Xavier Nwankpa

This is where things get interesting. As noted above, Kaleb Johnson is currently listed as the starting kick returner and he is the returning starter at the spot. But Cooper DeJean is a guy that simply needs more touches and could well push for the role. Another name to watch, however, is fellow sophomore Xavier Nwankpa.

The former 5-star athlete took on the role as co-returner late last year and ended the season listed as the #2 return man. While Iowa didn’t include a backup for the specialist positions in their spring depth chart, it’s fair to assume Nwankpa will continue in that role.

PR: Xavier Nwankpa

This is a bit of a stab in the dark given how Iowa has handled this role in the past. As mentioned above, Cooper DeJean took on the starting punt return role and was lightyears better than former starter Arland Bruce IV. He ended the year listed as the starter and remains that way in the spring. But his backup in Iowa’s bowl matchup against Kentucky was listed as walk-on WR Alec Wick.

While it’s possible Wick holds onto that role, it seems to make more sense to have Nwankpa, who is already a kick returner and will already be on the field as a starting safety, as the backup to DeJean. Keeping a defensive back on the field for punt return duties opens up a lot of possibilities for Phil Parker and Levar Woods and it gives yet another elite athlete touches with the ball.

The Rest

There’s not a ton left when it comes to the kicking game as Iowa only carries two punters, kickers and long snappers on the roster, but there are some other names to note when it comes to the return game. That’s to be expected given it’s the only real place in this group with some ambiguity heading into the fall.

Behind the aforementioned Kaleb Johnson, Cooper DeJean and Xavier Nwankpa, recent addition Kaleb Brown is a name to know in the return game. The former 4-star wide receiver who transferred from Ohio State was a high school running back who also had return duties both as a prep and as a backup for the Buckeyes.

He’s a prime candidate to potentially carve out a role on returns for the Hawkeyes. However, the limited depth at receiver may limit his ability to take more reps in a position where he’ll no doubt take hits.

Beyond Brown, TJ Hall is another sleeper as a potential contributor at both punt and kick returner. He got plenty of run there as a prep and fits the bill from a couple of angles. As a defensive back, he gives a similar versatility to DeJean or Nwankpa and as someone who isn’t currently listed as a starter, he offers an option that isn’t being worn down ahead of or immediately following time on the field.

Regardless of who rounds out the depth in the returner roles, the Hawkeyes are poised to once again be very good on special teams. Questions remain about whether the offense can move anywhere close to the 21st century, but the defense is going to be great and the specialists will be there to keep Iowa in virtually every game this season.

Par for the course in Iowa City.