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Leistikow's 6 thoughts: Iowa's special-teams edge against Minnesota; why Mark Kallenberger kneels

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

When the NCAA allowed Football Bowl Subdivision programs to add a 10th full-time assistant coach prior to the 2018 season, Kirk Ferentz knew exactly how he would proceed.

Ferentz used the newfound flexibility to make LeVar Woods the Hawkeyes’ first full-time special teams coordinator of his Iowa tenure, a move that was possible after Derrick Foster was added as running backs coach.

Woods has previously coached linebackers and tight ends and been a part of a years-long group effort on special teams. But Iowa’s special teams had become sore spots over the years — the 2014 home loss to Nebraska after poor punt coverage really bugged Ferentz — and Woods’ sole focus on special teams was needed.

For the past three years, long snappers, holders, punters and kickers have had a dedicated coach.

“I think that's made a huge difference, quite frankly,” Ferentz said Tuesday. “LeVar's had a tremendous impact on those guys, just from the psychological and mental standpoint. They're being coached daily by a coach, their coach.”

In 2017, Iowa’s punting was awful (114th out of 130 teams in FBS) and punt returns weren’t even being fielded correctly, let alone returned for much yardage.

Now, Iowa’s special teams in 2020 are not only a strength, they’re dynamic.

And that advantage could play a big factor in the 1-2 Hawkeyes’ Friday night game at 1-2 Minnesota (6 p.m., Fox Sports 1).

Let’s go down the list.

Iowa has the leading kickoff returner in the Big Ten Conference in Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who returned from a suspension this week.

Iowa has the Big Ten’s leading punt returner in Charlie Jones, the league’s reigning special-teams player of the week.

Now that Charlie Jones is averaging 15.0 yards per punt return and was the Big Ten's special-teams player of the week, will opponents stop kicking to him?

Iowa kicker Keith Duncan is the Big Ten’s all-time leader for field goals in a season and a 2019 Lou Groza Award finalist. Minnesota's kicker missed an overtime extra point in a loss to Maryland.

Behind freshman Tory Taylor, Iowa leads the Big Ten and is second nationally in net punting average at 46.5 yards. Minnesota has the worst punting production in the Big Ten (33.0 net).

Ferentz, as you might expect, isn’t ready to throw a special-teams parade after three games. He wants the kick-return team to bust a big one, and he noted that Duncan had a rare missed field goal against Michigan State.

“It's not all perfect at this stage,” Ferentz said. “But I think if you look at any of our teams that … you guys would consider our really good teams, most of them were pretty good on special teams.”

Ferentz indicated that Daraun McKinney’s transfer from Iowa was related to Jones’ emergence.

McKinney on Monday became the fourth Hawkeye in less than two weeks to enter the transfer portal. The redshirt freshman from River Rouge, Michigan, was recruited to Iowa has a defensive back and kick returner. But with Jones’ revelation as a terrific punt returner, Ferentz said McKinney didn’t see much upside for staying at Iowa. The Hawkeyes also have a deep group of young, talented cornerbacks.

“I think Daraun was hoping to get more playing time, and he feels like he's a really good returner and he's got the potential to be one,” Ferentz said. “We're just a little bit full right now, with Smith-Marsette and Charlie back there.”

Ferentz said he has met with the four transferring players — McKinney, running back Shadrick Byrd, linebacker Yahweh Jeudy and receiver Calvin Lockett — to understand their reasons for departure. Playing time was a common theme, Ferentz said.

“My biggest question for anybody that's going to leave the program is, ‘Have you really thought about it? And who have you visited with?’ That type of thing,” Ferentz said. “You don't want them to make an emotional decision.

“But if their heart's not in it, it just doesn't make sense to stay. So, I understand that side of the coin as well.”

Defensive tackle Austin Schulte and linebacker Jack Campbell are practicing and cleared to play against Minnesota.

Schulte, a fifth-year senior, has missed three games with an unspecified injury. His return will, at minimum, help defensive tackle Daviyon Nixon stay fresh. Nixon has played 188 snaps, 20 more than any other defensive lineman (Chauncey Golston has played 168), in his dynamic three-game start.

Campbell, who was ticketed to be the team’s starting middle linebacker, has missed the first three games while recovering from mononucleosis. Ferentz said Campbell won’t see a full workload on Friday, but that he would rotate with Seth Benson (who has 21 tackles in his two starts).

“(Campbell) is hardly in condition to go out and play 60 snaps, 70 snaps,” Ferentz said. “… We'll rotate him in. (He's) a really good football player, and we have total confidence he'll do a good job when he's in there.”

Kaevon Merriweather’s emergence could be a big help against Minnesota.

Merriweather didn’t play a snap on defense in Iowa’s season opening loss at Purdue, in which receiver David Bell decimated the Hawkeyes’ secondary for 13 catches and three touchdowns.

The sophomore has since been elevated into Iowa's starting lineup at strong safety, which has allowed Dane Belton to lock down the cash position in its nickel (4-2-5) base defense against passing teams. And the defensive performances have steadily improved, with the Hawkeyes forcing three turnovers in a stifling 49-7 rout of Michigan State.

Kaevon Merriweather, right, has improved his knowledge of Iowa's defense to get onto the field, teammate Jack Koerner said.

Free safety Jack Koerner, who has had one interception in each game Merriweather has started, said the communication between the safeties and Belton has been the key element. That’s allowed Matt Hankins (who played cash in the opener, with Belton at safety) and Riley Moss to man the cornerback spots. Hankins has been terrific, and Moss had a pick-six against the Spartans.

Merriweather opened the 2019 season as the starting free safety but got injured and wound up redshirting. We’re seeing glimpses of why defensive coordinator Phil Parker has been very high on Merriweather. He closes fast to the ball. Safety play will be critical Friday in curbing Minnesota’s middle-of-the-field passing game with star receiver Rashod Bateman.

“This past year, he really took a firmer grasp of the defense as a whole, and that’s something everybody is really taking notice of,” Koerner said of Merriweather. “And obviously that's the reason that he's been able to be successful on the field and out there playing.”

Mark Kallenberger is one of three white Hawkeye players who have taken a knee during the national anthem the past two weeks.

The starting right tackle on Tuesday thoughtfully explained why he is joining about two dozen of his Black teammates in protesting racial injustices in America.

Kallenberger lives with running backs Mekhi Sargent and Keontae Luckett and Jeudy and has been affected by their stories. He also mentioned a family friend who “is like a brother to me” back in the Davenport area, alluding to his friend experiencing discrimination.

“It’s guys like that, where I’ve seen them struggle so much throughout the years … I’ve taken it upon myself to take a knee,” Kallenberger said.

Kallenberger also said he reached out to a friend who is serving in Iraq to ask for guidance about what to do during the anthem.

“I asked him about it,” Kallenberger said. “He was like, ‘I’m all for it. Go ahead and kneel. I appreciate you asking. But America’s a little messed up right now, and I think that’s something you should do.’”

Ferentz has given his full support to players to make their own choices during the anthem, a departure from his past hard-line stance about standing for the American flag. Ferentz has said he was affected by a former Navy SEAL who told the team that he fought in wars “so (we) could enjoy the liberties and freedoms that are very unique to our country."

Friday’s game-time temperature is expected to be around 32 degrees.

That’s old hat for the Gophers. But it'll unofficially mark the coldest-weather game that Californian Spencer Petras has started at quarterback. On Tuesday, Iowa's sophomore signal-caller shared that his final high school game was in Redding, California, and played in the high-30s or low-40s.

Petras’ Marin Catholic team lost that game 40-27, and he finished 14-for-34 passing for 340 yards — including 2-for-17 accuracy in the second half.

“Just got to wear a long-sleeve shirt and bring my hand-warmer,” Petras said. “I’ll be all right.”

Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 26 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.