Leistikow: The case for LeVar Woods as a future head coach and Iowa's plan to replace Charlie Jones
At some point during the 21st century, the University of Iowa will have to hire a new head football coach. And when that time eventually comes, LeVar Woods should absolutely be on the short list of candidates.
And if not at Iowa, Woods is head-coach material somewhere, someday.
The Hawkeyes’ 11th-year assistant and current special-teams coordinator checks every box that you’d want leading a locker room. He’s played and excelled at all levels, including the highest level. At Iowa, he carries the unique distinction of bridging the Hayden Fry and Kirk Ferentz eras as a player. It was Woods’ blocked field-goal return for a touchdown against Northern Illinois in 1999 that helped clinch Ferentz’s first of 178 wins (and counting) at Iowa.
As a coach, Woods brings an infectious positive energy to those around him. He is admired by his players and known to have high character. He adapts to the times, including in recent years with a sharper focus on the importance of sports psychology with his kickers.
He’s been a successful coach at Iowa on defense (spending three years with the outside linebackers, which was his NFL position) and on offense (he was the tight ends coach who coached THE George Kittle and who first helped develop Noah Fant and T.J. Hockenson into first-round NFL Draft picks). And now he enters his sixth year leading a special-teams unit that is considered in some circles as the best in the country at its craft.
As someone who knows Woods well and played in the NFL recently texted me, “It’d be tough to find a player that didn’t get better under him and/or didn’t respect him as a person."
Woods, 44, and his wife, Meghann, have three children. His son, Mason, is a sophomore-to-be at Iowa City West and recently received his first Power Five football offer … from Missouri. With his kids getting older, perhaps the time will soon come when Woods feels the itch for a new challenge and gets pulled into a more prominent role.
“Yes, someday I would like to (be a head coach),” Woods said in an interview this week with the Des Moines Register on our Hawk Central radio show. “When that is, where that is, how that is, I’m not even thinking about that right now. But at some point, sure.”
For now, he’s content to be in charge of the Hawkeyes’ special teams … and that role got more complicated recently with the surprising transfer of elite return specialist Charlie Jones to Purdue.
Here are a few of the most interesting topics that Woods addressed in our conversation.
Instead of relying on Jones … Woods will be game-planning against him.
Jones is the reigning Big Ten return specialist of the year, and his daring style on punt returns made him a big-play threat every time he touched the football. However, Woods — again, with that positive mindset — sees this sour development as a sweet opportunity for guys previously in the background.
“If you’re talking on the field, I think Charlie’s departure is certainly significant. There’s no doubt about it,” Woods said. “But I also feel like we have guys on this team that can play and return punts and return kicks.”
At the top of the list of replacements would be wide receiver Arland Bruce IV and defensive back Cooper DeJean. They were major playmakers in high school who made a strong first impression last season as Hawkeye freshmen. Lesser-known walk-ons like Kaden Wetjen, Jamison Heinz and Alec Wick are obscure but intriguing possibilities.
And then Woods offered this interesting tidbit.
“I can tell you that the day it was announced that Charlie was going to leave our team,” Woods said, “a very veteran defensive back texted me right away and said, ‘I want to be the punt returner.’”
Renowned special-teamer Terry Roberts? Reigning Big Ten defensive back of the year and high school speedster Riley Moss?
Woods paused for a moment before answering.
“I’m talking about both of those guys,” he said.
In other words, the slate is wide open and Woods sees plentiful options to fill Jones' absence. And as is Iowa’s tradition since putting Desmond King into a punt-return role in 2015, it is willing put its best players in the return game. If that means Roberts or Moss (the expected Week 1 starting cornerbacks) or both, that would an exciting proposition.
Woods is making recruiting inroads in a new, hot territory.
With the hiring of Abdul Hodge as tight ends coach in March, the Hawkeyes shifted around some recruiting responsibilities. Hodge and running backs coach Ladell Betts now give Iowa more recruiting muscle in Florida, as evidenced by the recent commitment of four-star running back Kendrick Raphael from Naples.
Hodge also picked up the St. Louis area in recruiting, which had previously been Woods’ turf (with A.J. Epenesa being his most notable haul from nearby Edwardsville in the Class of 2017). That has opened the door for Woods to dabble in the Phoenix area, previously untouched by Iowa in recruiting. The majority of Woods’ seven-year NFL career was spent with the Arizona Cardinals, so he has lots of connections there.
Although Iowa fell short in landing standout receiver Kyler Kasper, the son of Woods’ former teammate Kevin Kasper who picked Oregon, Woods reports the early efforts in Arizona have been productive. And, he added, “You would be shocked how many people from Iowa or who are Hawkeye fans that are down there.”
While the fruits of getting into Phoenix may take a while to pay off, the Hawkeyes are hoping to eventually see the payoff (as they did with 3-4 years of groundwork in Denver, where Iowa landed defensive end Chase Brackney for its 2023 class). Iowa recently offered a scholarship to Class of 2024 safety Kennedy Urlacher of Gilbert, Arizona — the son of NFL Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher.
“There’s definitely strong ties down there in Arizona. And it’s an easy flight; a direct flight … to Cedar Rapids,” Woods said. “There are certainly plenty of players down there. The brand of football has increased dramatically there over the last 15 or 20 years.”
Who will be Iowa’s placekicker?
The Hawkeyes have been spoiled for years, with Keith Duncan (consensus all-American in 2019 and just as good in 2020) and Caleb Shudak (third-team AP all-American in 2021) booting balls through the uprights in recent years. And there’s good-news, bad-news with their potential replacements.
The bad news is that the trio of Lucas Amaya, Aaron Blom and Drew Stevens aren’t there yet. With Amaya injured in the spring, Blom (of Oskaloosa) and Stevens (a true freshman who has the same private kicking coach as Duncan) battled fairly evenly but were inconsistent.
The good news is that Woods sees a high ceiling for the three contenders. This derby will definitely continue into August; it’s certainly possible one will handle kickoffs (as Shudak did for years) and another will handle placements.
“If you compare (younger versions of) Keith and Caleb to Aaron, Drew and Lucas now, I think the comparisons are very similar,” Woods said. “If you’re trying to compare them to a fifth- or sixth-year player, I don’t think it’s comparable right now. But give them time to improve, then I think you’re looking at the same type of kicker. Time will tell.”
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has covered sports for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa City Press-Citizen. Follow @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.