Leistikow: Record list of candidates in Iowa kicking derby
To burn time before college football’s season openers, you may have noticed the Big Ten Network has been re-airing some 2015 classics.
You may have also noticed a trend.
Iowa-Pittsburgh? Came down to a last-second field goal.
Michigan State-Ohio State to decide the Big Ten East? You know what happened.
As folks explain their preseason predictions – Fox Sports put Iowa No. 15 nationally on Wednesday – the kicking game is rarely mentioned. But it’s almost annually worth a swing of at least one win or loss. The difference between, say, 9-3 and 10-2.
But rest somewhat assured, Hawkeye fans. It’s a high priority for the head Hawk as Iowa opens fall camp Thursday.
If it’s not No. 1 on Kirk Ferentz’s list, it’s 1B.
By rule, he is permitted to invite 105 players into camp. This year, specialists will gobble up eight spots.
That’s a record under Ferentz’s 18 years of direction – by “a landslide,” he said.
Big concern, as special teams coach Chris White said in April?
Well, yeah. Marshall Koehn is gone. And even though he shanked some PATs, Koehn was an asset on kickoffs, 57-yard game-winning field goals and occasional rugby punts. Regular punter Dillon Kidd was just OK, but still, Iowa has to replace him.
So, like a runaway wedding guest list, almost everyone got camp invites – four placekickers, two punters and long snappers Tyler Kluver and Jackson Subbert.
“Given our circumstances, we want to let it get a full exposure and let the thing play out. It could go through September, too,” Ferentz said at Big Ten media days. “I hope it doesn’t. But we’ll do whatever we have to do to get the best guys out there.”
Let’s meet the contestants.
Redshirt sophomores Miguel Recinos and Mick Ellis are 1-2 on the depth chart. But they're about to get seriously challenged by true freshman walk-ons Keith Duncan and Caleb Shudak.
Duncan is a preferred walk-on from North Carolina who made 22 of 29 field goals (including five from 50-plus). Shudak was a multi-sport athlete (a trait Iowa likes) at Council Bluffs Lewis Central and has premium kicking bloodlines as the son of 1980s Iowa State kicker Jeff Shudak.
How to decide who wins the job? Beyond seeing balls go through uprights, White said, “the main thing is seeing how they react under pressure.”
On Hawk Central radio this summer, White told us a spring story of how Ferentz put the whole team through running drills for what seemed like a half hour. Then?
“They were dead tired, and at the very end of that, he made the kickers kick – both of them,” White said. “It was kind of telling on who’s mentally tough and who’s not. ... You’ve got to be able to flush a bad kick.”
The punting job is likely between Ron Coluzzi (a graduate transfer from Central Michigan) and listed No. 1 Colten Rastetter (a left-footed, redshirt freshman from Guttenberg who averaged 47 yards on three spring-game punts).
That only two of the four punters on the roster got camp invites seems to be a positive sign – that coaches feel good about one of these guys to improve on Iowa's No. 96 rating (out of 127 FBS teams) in net punting last fall. (With Coluzzi, Central Michigan was a tick better in 80th.)
Ferentz will devote more August practice minutes than usual to the kicking game.
He understands a missed 47-yard field goal is not only three lost points but it gives the opponent the ball at the 30.
He realizes an extra three or four yards a punt could be 25-30 yards of field position in a tight game, of which there will be many for Iowa this fall.
Whoever emerges out of the four-kicker cage match will have been tested. Same with Coluzzi vs. Rastetter at punter.
“We want to give everybody a chance to compete fairly,” Ferentz said. “I don’t know how long we can do it. It’s kind of like a quarterback derby. But at some point we’re going to have to start making some decisions and paring it down.”
Bring on the competition.
This is an important one.
And there's urgency. As of Wednesday, the opener against Miami of Ohio was only a month away.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 22 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.