Open auditions for Hawkeyes' struggling kick-return game

Chad Leistikow

WEST DES MOINES, Ia. – Things are still being worked out, but a high-interest topic among Iowa's football coaches this spring is: Who will return kicks?

There's legitimate concern in the punt and kickoff return departments. So when the Hawkeyes line up for Saturday's 12:30 p.m. open practice at Valley Stadium, don't be surprised to see a variety of return men auditioning for the lead role(s).

Let's start with the punt returns, which — truthfully — have been more a contest of who can signal a fair catch than anything. And when the Hawkeyes have returned punts, they have been among the worst in the nation (5.1 yards per return a year ago, 104th out of 125 FBS teams).

And don't remind Hawkeye fans about getting fooled by fake punts.

Special-teams coach Chris White was asked this week if he felt Iowa's punt-return approach was too passive.

"I think it's fair, in terms of we've been burnt on fakes," White said. "We have almost a philosophy that the ball is the most important thing. At times we were in a punt-safe … mentality that, at times, we probably could have been more aggressive. I think we do need to pressure the punters more."

White said special teams has become a more shared duty in head coach Kirk Ferentz's minor offseason staff restructuring, and that tight ends coach LeVar Woods would lead the punt-return game this year.

Still, White spoke to some of the 2015 candidates. There are the returning ball-control options in Matt VandeBerg (12 punt returns for 82 yards) and Riley McCarron (eight for 13 yards).

Also getting shots: Starting cornerback Desmond King and No. 3 running back Akrum Wadley.

"Akrum needs to be pushed, because of his athletic ability," White said.

Both are possibilities on kickoff returns, too, where a year ago Jonathan Parker held the lead role but had some forgettable moments. The infamous one came during the TaxSlayer Bowl, where his momentum began to carry him out of bounds at Iowa's 3-yard line so he threw the ball forward to a Tennessee player — luckily, it was ruled an illegal forward pass and not a fumble.

But it was a play that White said "crushed" Parker, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound sophomore-to-be.

"I've never seen anything like it, and probably most of you haven't," White said. "But it was just a reaction and (one of) those experience things that he's going to learn from.

"We haven't lost faith him. He has more play-making ability than most on our team, and we need to find a way to get him to track the ball better."

Running back Jordan Canzeri replaced Parker late in the Tennessee loss.

"Reps, reps, reps," White said of Parker, who averaged 22.1 yards on 24 returns last year, "and if he can't do it, we need to find someone else."


What: Iowa football open practice

When, where: Saturday, 12:30 p.m., Valley Stadium (4440 Mills Civic Parkway, West Des Moines)

Admission: Free. No tickets are necessary. Concession stands will be open.

Parking: Valley Church, adjacent to Valley Stadium, will have limited public parking until 4:30 p.m. Additional parking is available at Valley Southwoods Freshman High School, Jordan Creek Elementary, the West Des Moines city hall and library. Fans are encouraged to car pool. Access to most parking is available off of Fuller Drive and/or 39th Street. There are paved walking paths on the surrounding campus that lead to the stadium.