IOWA CITY, Ia. — Entering his second year as Iowa’s full-time special-teams coordinator, LeVar Woods has the freedom and willingness to look anywhere and everywhere to find an edge.
We saw that benefit the Hawkeyes a year ago, with an assortment of successful trick plays from kicking formations.
And the hope is it shows up each time the football is kicked or punted by a Hawkeye player this fall.
Both primary specialist jobs are wide open going into the 2019 season, and Woods is charged with finding the best solutions for a program that typically plays a lot of close, hard-fought games.
A missed field goal or a first down’s worth of punt yardage could be the difference in an outcome on any Saturday.
That especially showed up in a positive way in November, when Miguel Recinos' walk-off field goal defeated Nebraska.
But it showed up negatively in the punting game, as Iowa ranked 118th in punting average (37.93 yards) out of 130 FBS teams.
The response? Iowa went out and grabbed the guy that ranked 23rd in FBS in yards per punt as a graduate transfer. Arizona State’s Michael Sleep-Dalton will join the team this summer.
The thought would be that Sleep-Dalton should come here and win the job, right?
Not so fast.
Kicking through the cold wind in Big Ten Conference country isn’t the same as launching punts into Arizona’s dry desert air.
“A different conference and a different type of football, which he and I have discussed,” Woods said Tuesday. “And he knows, and that’s part of the challenge for him.”
And he’ll also confront competition.
Woods reported that last year’s punter, Colten Rastetter, and redshirt sophomore Ryan Gersonde are performing better than ever.
Rastetter, a walk-on entering his fifth and final year, would be the first to tell you he wasn’t happy with his punting down the stretch of the 2018 season. But since the Outback Bowl, a change in (traditional) style has produced results.
“Switched up my steps a little bit, switched up my finish a little bit,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of film study, and that really helped out.”
Rastetter recently met Sleep-Dalton and said he’s a nice guy. But he’s certainly not conceding the job.
“He punted in Arizona, so we’ll see how he likes it up here in the Midwest,” Rastetter said with a laugh. “… I’m going to go out with a swing. Whoever wins it, I’m going to be happy and help out as best I can.”
There's nothing wrong with a little competition.
And there will certainly be plenty of that at place-kicker.
That position usually has fun personalities, and this derby will be no exception. The headliner is Keith Duncan, the 2016 hero against Michigan who won a four-way race for the job as a true freshman. But Duncan has been on the bench for two years since — because, well, Recinos was just better.
In fact, Duncan said his numbers in accuracy, leg strength and in the weight room have increased significantly since his freshman year. Woods confirmed that fact.
“He’s able to replicate a more consistent shot that he feels more confident is going to go through the uprights,” Woods said. “And it actually travel further.”
Yet Duncan is listed No. 2 on the depth chart, behind fellow walk-on Caleb Shudak — who, at 5-foot-8, has the stronger leg (at least on kickoffs).
“We call him Mighty Mouse. He’s a freak show,” Duncan said. “He’s really good in the weight room.”
Those two will be joined by incoming freshman Lucas Amaya this summer. He’ll quickly be introduced to another way Iowa kickers look to gain an edge: sports psychologist Carmen Tebbe.
Each day, Duncan explained, kickers go through what’s called a mental warm-up and a mental cool down. They’ll try to find their “go zone” in kicking; their best zone. After workouts, they’ll discuss how they did.
“LeVar’s a big proponent of it,” Duncan said. “He does it with us.”
Woods is a believer. He saw how it benefited Recinos’ career.
“I wish I had this when I was a player,” Woods said. “I wish that I understood some of the skills she teaches when I was in college.”
So best leg wins, right?
Between now and the Aug. 31 opener, each kicker will be put through a pressurized gauntlet. Woods wants each kicker to show he can tame whatever fire comes his way.
“Whether it’s in a two-minute drill … and we’re running the kicker out there to see if he can drill a 51-yarder in front of his teammates,” Woods said, “or whether it’s in fall camp and the entire team’s screaming, yelling, calling out ex-girlfriends' names, (we’re) just trying to distract them to see if they can put the ball through the uprights.”
It’s all in the name of scoring more points, gaining more field position.
That’s Woods’ primary job.
And, as of mid-April, he feels good about where Iowa’s kicking game stands.
“I do. Ask me in August,” he said. “But right now, I do.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 24 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.