Leistikow's takeaways: The possible remedies in Iowa's ailing punt-return game

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

IOWA CITY, Ia. — Ten yards. That’s the field-position gain Iowa coaches want to see when a Hawkeye punt returner gets his hands on the football.

“Take away a first down that the offense has to get,” special-teams coordinator LeVar Woods said.

A great goal.

But of course, last season, “when” became a touchy issue — and often became “if.”

Way too often, whoever was returning punts — usually Josh Jackson or Matt VandeBerg — watched balls soaring or bounding by for huge field-position swings.

Ihmir Smith-Marsette showed electric potential as a true freshman last season and now could be in line to become Iowa's primary return man as a sophomore.

Poor punt-return awareness happened against Michigan State, against Northwestern, against Wisconsin, against Purdue. (All losses, by the way.)

The goal here in April isn’t to re-hash fall failures — except to point out it’s a major issue that still requires fixing.

And in meeting the media Friday, Woods — whose sole coaching role is now special teams, after offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz took over tight ends — not only acknowledged that but took the blame.

Then, he even provided optimism for a solution.

“Some of those issues, I’m going to take the brunt of those in getting the punt returner lined up,” Woods said. “But I also think we have some guys now that have the confidence to go back there … and are looking for a big return.

“We’ve got a couple guys that have that naturally and innately.”

Woods nailed it. You’ve got to have the right guy with the right mentality back there. And he’s got to be confident.

In 2015 and especially 2016, Desmond King became that guy. He was a potent punt returner, averaging 11.4 yards in his final two years on 45 returns. He was a guy that was aggressive while also demonstrating sure-handed true.

That’s the type of guy Iowa needs to identify — and maybe is starting to — this spring.

Keep reading…

ISM, IKM and a walk-on

Last season, even when Iowa was able to field a punt, the results were middling. The Hawkeyes garnered just 123 total punt-return yards (less than a first down per game), including just 64 in nine Big Ten Conference games.

Woods singled out three guys that are emerging in the return role: true sophomores Ihmir Smith-Marsette and Ivory Kelly-Martin, and walk-on senior transfer Kyle Groeneweg.

Most intriguing of the group is Smith-Marsette, a 6-foot-1, 175-pound receiver who showed his youth and explosiveness in Iowa’s regular-season finale at Nebraska.

His first return, he caught and stepped out of bound as the 1-yard line. Oops. His next, he bolted 74 yards deep into Cornhusker territory. In a recent open-practice glimpse, it was clear that Smith-Marsette has top-level speed.

“As the year went on last year — aside from a silly, crazy stepping out of bounds on the (1) against Nebraska — he showed some flashes as a returner,” Woods said. “He has very good high school film. … He’s turned a couple heads so far in spring.”

Iowa might be reluctant to dispatch Kelly-Martin in the return role if he is crucial to a thin running-back rotation. But Groeneweg? Now that’s an interesting one. At 5-10, 186, we don’t know much about the fifth-year senior except that head coach Kirk Ferentz recently called him “nifty” in the return game.

Woods has a connection to Groeneweg, in that both attended West Lyon High School — “the greatest high school in Iowa,” Woods proudly proclaimed more than once.

Groeneweg spent all last year “on the scout team taking his lumps,” Woods said. “I think the guy has a chance to be a pretty good returner for us.”

How this turns out? We’ll have little idea, beyond what coaches tell us. It’s unlikely Iowa will run live punt-return drills at its April 20 open practice. Stay tuned. But it sounds promising for now.

Who punts?

OK, so what about the other side of the punt game?

“Some good, some bad,” Woods correctly evaluated Friday of last year’s punters, Colten Rastetter and Ryan Gersonde.

Iowa ranked 114th out of 130 FBS teams in yards per punt (38.6). That's an eyesore.

Both return. Then a true freshman, Gersonde looked like the more potent option last fall (he averaged 52.6 yards on five punts at Northwestern) but he ended up getting hurt, leaving Rastetter to handle the job in the last five games.

Woods said the issue for Gersonde, who gained Australian influence while living in that country from age 2 to 14, is selecting a style that works for him.

“He’s got a couple different styles and (needs) to settle in on one and be effective at it,” Woods said. “… Does he want to be a two-step punter, a jab two-step punter? All the mechanics that go into it is no different than being a quarterback or any other position.

“It is very critical we improve in that area.”

Iowa has no other punters. These two are it, unless a graduate transfer (like Ron Coluzzi) magically comes along. The read here is that Gersonde — who coaches gave a scholarship — is the leading guy. He entered spring practice at No. 1 on the depth chart and has the better leg, but don’t be shocked if Rastetter gets action when Iowa needs a rugby-style boot ... or a fake, as he did three times last year.

3 kickers, 4 long-snappers

At place-kicker, 2016 Michigan game hero Keith Duncan is still around ... even if he's not on the Iowa-supplied depth chart. Senior Miguel Recinos is on the No. 1 line, as he should be after a fantastic 2017 season, and walk-on Caleb Shudak is No. 2.

“I have my own depth chart. I don’t know what you’re talking about," Woods said playfully. "But (Duncan) is doing well. He’s progressing."

Woods did say there's only been one practice out of eight (so far) that the kickers had a bad day.

As for who hikes the football? Four long snappers are vying to replace mainstay Tyler Kluver — Jackson Subbert, Austin Spiewak, Marshall Coluzzi and Nate Vejvoda.

And, hey, who doesn't love a good long-snapper competition? (Seriously, it's something to monitor.)

Recruiting talk

Kelvin Bell was part of Friday's interviews, too. The recruiting coordinator had a lot to say about that ever-evolving role. One of the current changes schools are dealing with is the new allowance of offering official visits in the spring.

Coaches are trying to determine: How many of them are worth spending now? Maybe some, Bell said, on a case-by-case basis.

With an early signing period in December now, Iowa has gotten more aggressive the past few years in lining up a majority of commitments by June or July.

“This is the way it should be: From August to December, every high school kid should be worried about winning a state championship," Bell said. "They shouldn’t be worried about where they’re going on Saturday, in terms of recruiting. They should be trying to be the best high school senior, junior that they can be."

Sounds good, but it won't change until the NCAA offers an even earlier signing period in the summer before a prospect's senior year.