Iowa’s football season opens this weekend against Miami of Ohio.
IOWA CITY, Ia. – There’s a kinship among kickers. Ron Coluzzi and Keith Duncan felt it the second they stepped on campus at Iowa in June.
Their first order of business was to shake hands, find some footballs and get to work, exchanging tips and philosophies about an often-undervalued aspect of their sport.
Three months later, that shared passion has brought them to the top of the Hawkeye depth chart. When the No. 15 Hawkeyes open their season at 2:30 p.m. Saturday against Miami of Ohio (ESPNU), it will be Coluzzi handling the punting, Duncan the place-kicking, 66,000 fans the judging.
How Coluzzi and Duncan became Hawkeyes is not a linear story. How they won their jobs is more straightforward — with hard work and consistent results.
Coluzzi was the first to commit, once the Illinois native decided that after three years at Central Michigan he wanted to pursue his dream of playing in the Big Ten Conference. He remembered watching Iowa games on television last fall and hearing announcers talk about the Hawkeyes’ need to replace kicker Marshall Koehn and punter Dillon Kidd. He informed Iowa of his intentions in the winter, graduated from college May 5 and was in Iowa City a month later.
Coach Kirk Ferentz announced that a walk-on, true freshman will lead the Hawkeyes kicking game on Saturday as they start the season. Iowa plays Miami of Ohio, which reporters Chad Leistikow and Mark Emmert say will be the Hawkeyes' easiest opponent.
Duncan put up staggering numbers at his high school in Weddington, N.C., scoring 367 points. As a senior, he made 22-of-29 field goals, with a long of 54 yards. But the big schools didn’t come calling so he settled on Furman of the FCS.
Former Iowa and NFL punter Jason Baker, who lives in Charlotte, got wind of Duncan’s prowess and knew his alma mater was looking for a new kicker. He checked Duncan out, recommended him to Iowa assistant coach Seth Wallace and soon Duncan and his father, Stuart, were driving through the snow for a late January campus visit.
Even Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz was sketchy on the details this week.
“I'm not sure how he ended up here. I didn't know who he was at that point,” Ferentz said. “I'm not sure what brought them to the Midwest, and he was determined to come here.”
Stuart Duncan said his son was impressed by Iowa’s football facilities, but it might have been his first glimpse of an academic building that sealed his fate. Keith Duncan is a budding forensic scientist.
Iowa's football coach will have a lot of new faces in Saturday's season opener.
“You come around that corner and you’re staring at the biomedical sciences building and you could see his face just light up,” Stuart Duncan recalled.
Still, both Coluzzi and Duncan needed to win starting jobs after arriving without the promise of scholarships. For Coluzzi, that meant outperforming Hawkeye sophomore Colten Rastetter. Duncan battled with redshirt sophomores Mick Ellis and Miguel Recinos and fellow freshman Caleb Shudak.
“He had a relatively consistent camp, especially for a true freshman, which is something that stands out. His misses weren’t severe misses,” said Baker, who has become a mentor to both Coluzzi and Duncan.
“The kid kicks a lot of balls right down the middle. And the thing people are going to wonder is, how far back can he go? One of those things matters a lot. The other one doesn’t matter a lot in my mind. The number of times you’ve got to kick a 55-yard field goal, there’s no comparison to the number of times you’ve got to kick a 31-yard field goal.”
Duncan was 17-for-17 from inside 50 yards as a high school senior. He’ll need to develop strength to boot them farther in college, Baker said. That’s why Coluzzi will handle kickoff duties; he may also get the call if Ferentz does want to try a field goal from more than 50 yards.
For Coluzzi, getting the job – and a scholarship – is vindication for attempting something he said even his own father wasn’t sure about.
“My dad (Ron) thought that it would be a long shot for me to make this dream a reality,” Coluzzi said, adding that he wasn’t going to gloat about it.
“I think your foot always has to be on the gas pedal. If I’m not at my best every day, my job can be taken.”
Ferentz praised Coluzzi for his maturity, saying he has provided great leadership to a young group of kickers. Stuart Duncan said Coluzzi has taken his son under his wing and been a positive influence. Coluzzi comes across as philosophical when talking to reporters.
“I just don’t like being told no. I don’t like being told I can’t do something,” Coluzzi said this week. “If you want to be somewhere in life, if you want to lose 40 pounds, make it happen. If you want to be president of the United States, make it happen.”
If you want to punt in the Big Ten …
“The cool thing about Ron is he has a good balance of confidence and the humility of recognizing that there’s still things left to learn,” said Baker, who is Iowa’s all-time leader in punts and yards. “I think he’s going to really be a help on Saturdays.
“I’ve heard a lot of head coaches say the most important play is a punt play. That’s when most people go to get a beer. But you’ve got significant change in field position; there’s a lot of ground to be gained or lost in all of those plays.”
Ferentz called Duncan “unflappable” this week, and a kicker certainly needs to be. Stuart Duncan said his son has always been that way.
“If you sit there and you watched him you don’t know if he’s made one from 60 or missed one from 10,” Stuart Duncan said. “He’s not going to be the guy, if he makes a 50-yarder with no time left on the clock, running around wind-milling his hands. He’ll high-five the holder (which would be Coluzzi) and that’s it.
“He manages his emotions in a really, really good way.”
Dad can’t say the same. Stuart and Jennifer Duncan will fly out for their son’s college debut. Keith’s grandparents will be in attendance as well. But they won’t all be sitting together, certainly not when Keith is called upon to kick.
“We’ll sit together and we’ll enjoy the entrance and the ‘Hawk Walk’ and coming through the tunnel,” Stuart Duncan said. “Everything will be great until third-and-8 happens and I’ll have to get up and pace. I can’t watch it live. I’ll watch it on replays from the concourse.”
No. 15 IOWA VS. MIAMI OF OHIO
WHERE: Kinnick Stadium, Iowa City
TIME/TV: 2:32 p.m., ESPNU (announcers: Eamon McAnaney and John Congemi)
LINE: Iowa by 27.5
WEATHER: Partly cloudy with southeast winds of 8 mph. Daytime high is 77