Iowa takeaways: Woods' new focus, encouraging tight-end talk

Chad Leistikow

IOWA CITY, Ia. — There’s a sign near Iowa’s locker room that basically says if you’re a skill-position player, there’s a seat in the special-teams meeting room for you.

That means everyone except offensive and defensive linemen. And, of course, quarterbacks are excused, too.

Come one, come most.

The new missive under the Hawkeyes’ new special-teams coordinator casts a wide net to find the best and most enthusiastic players to make a game-changing impact.

Iowa's field-goal unit reacts to a converted kick by Miguel Recinos at halftime of last year's loss to Wisconsin. Special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods said Wednesday that his coverage, return and kick units are open competitions this spring.

“We're working diligently to develop a culture,” said LeVar Woods, the fifth-year full-time assistant at Iowa who was put in charge of special teams this spring after the firing of Chris White. “Here at the University of Iowa, when (Kirk) Ferentz came in and took over this program in 1999, he had three pillars. He talked about winning with defense, winning with great special teams, and winning with strength and conditioning; those being our edges. And that's what we've been trying to hammer home this spring.”

The urgency to assemble game-changing units is high and real, because the Hawkeyes graduated premier specialists in punter Ron Coluzzi and kick-returners Desmond King and Riley McCarron.

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Coluzzi was a one-man coverage unit in some ways. Only 12 of the team’s 78 punts (15.4 percent) were even returned, and 42 of his 64 kickoffs  (65.6 percent) went for touchbacks. A replacement in both areas likely won’t be decided until August, and Woods said the place-kicking job held last year by Keith Duncan was wide-open.

Going the other way, King was one of the most dynamic return men in the country. He and McCarron combined to average a whopping 12.5 yards on 33 punt returns and 28.7 yards on 28 kickoff returns.

Woods mentioned four players who have zero career returns at Iowa as competing for the return job: receiver Devonte Young (the listed No. 1), cornerback Manny Rugamba, safety Amani Hooker and receiver Nick Easley.

But, as with all special-teams positions, everything’s wide-open. And starters will be involved, too. They stop by Woods’ office to ask how they can get on one of his special-teams units. That contingent includes Butkus Award finalist Josey Jewell.

“Still the first guy in every line in every special teams drill,” Woods said of Jewell. “Setting the example for everyone, the younger guys. …  Not sure which unit or how many units, but he's going to play, and he wants to.”

After the 2014 season's disappointment, Ferentz responded with a renewed emphasis on putting the best players on special teams. Of course, that philosophy can have negative side effects. It was midway through the 2015 season that star defensive end Drew Ott tore an ACL on a punt rush, ending his college career.

How tight ends will be used

In addition to bringing up special-teams culture in his opening statement with Iowa media members Wednesday, Woods also dropped this little tidbit about his primary position group: the tight ends.

“We're also working on our new system ... and it's a little bit more multiple,” Woods said. “Tight ends are asked to be in different spots, different positions a little bit more than we have in the past."

In football, "multiple" means varying formations to keep the defense off-balance. Anything less-predictable would be a welcome sight to Hawkeye fans.

And although new offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz has indicated that the basis of approach will remain consistent — to achieve a 50/50 run-pass balance — it sounds like more creativity is being broached. Ferentz, of course, coached tight ends during his four-year stint with the New England Patriots.

“We both share a passion of tight ends. He's coached them before … and I coach them now,” Woods said. “We also know this program and how the history of tight ends — the history and tradition has been using tight ends here, and that's what we're kind of looking at.”

So, who are they?

Great question. Stay tuned for a public audition as Friday’s open practice at Valley Stadium. The first whistle is expected to blow between 6:15-6:30 p.m.

Senior Peter Pekar, the listed starter, redshirt sophomore Nate Wieting (who is injured) and senior Jon Wisnieski sound like the top blocking options.

The more multi-threat tight ends are 6-foot-5 youngsters. Woods on each:

Sophomore Noah Fant: “The guy can run, flat-out run, and I think he's developing. He's underrated a little bit as a blocker.”

Freshman T.J. Hockenson: “Kind of unknown because he spent the year on the fine scout team. I think when you watch, you'll notice he plays with a little bit of an edge, a little bit nasty, which I like.”

Freshman Shaun Beyer: “I get mad at him in the meetings because he sits back and doesn't say a word, and then I get out on the field and I totally expect him to blow it, and the things we've handed him so far, he's handled pretty well.”

Battle for OL depth

New offensive line coach Tim Polasek, probably to his credit, played it close to the vest after his seventh practice as a Hawkeye assistant.

The starters are pretty set — Boone Myers, Keegan Render, James Daniels, Sean Welsh and Ike Boettger. But the battles for Nos. 6-8 are continuing.

“You know, we're not in position to throw a bunch of names out there right now,” Polasek said. “We're in the middle of this. I think in a week, though, it's going to be pretty solidified as far as who's got the best chance to come in and compete.”

A year ago, Nos. 6-8 were important. They ended up being Render (who made seven starts), Lucas LeGrand (two starts) and Levi Paulsen (one).

The only reserve he named Wednesday as "doing a nice job" was Alaric Jackson, a 6-foot-7, 320-pound redshirt freshman tackle. From left to right, Iowa’s listed No. 2 offensive line is Jackson, Ross Reynolds, LeGrand, Paulsen and Dalton Ferguson.

“There's probably five or six guys that are fighting for (those 6-8 spots),” Polasek said.