Iowa football's kicker, returner battles heating up in fall camp. Here's the latest.
In 2021, Iowa's strong special teams unit was a catalyst for the Hawkeyes capturing 10 wins and the Big Ten West title.
If you recall, there was punter Tory Taylor consistently pinning Penn State inside their 20-yard line in a top-five win, the blocked punt-turned-touchdown against Nebraska or Charlie Jones' kickoff return touchdown against Illinois. All served as examples of how that unit flipped games last season.
Taylor returns as one of the nation's best punters. But for the rest of the group, big questions loom entering the 2022 season.
The Hawkeyes will have a new kicker in 2022. They've experienced consistent kicking for nearly a decade beginning with the run of standouts in Marshall Koehn, Miguel Recinos, Keith Duncan and, most recently Caleb Shudak. The current Tennessee Titan converted 24-of-28 field goals (85.7 percent) and was a consistent source of points for an often stagnant offense.
Similarly, departed return man Charlie Jones was a sparkplug with the ball in his hands. Now, the two-time All-Big Ten performer is playing for rival Purdue.
Iowa had an inconsistent kicking effort in their final spring practice and Jones' late departure left an unexpected void to fill. A few months later, both of those position battles are beginning to take shape.
Sophomore Aaron Blom and freshman Drew Stevens, the two contenders for kicker, combined for a perfect 15-for-15 day during Iowa's Kids Day Scrimmage last Saturday. There wasn't any live return action but coach Kirk Ferentz pinpointed three main contenders to replace Jones: senior Riley Moss and sophomores Arland Bruce IV and Cooper DeJean.
What criteria is special teams coach LeVar Woods judging the kickers? How did Iowa narrow down the list of possible returners? How can the finalists separate themselves?
Here's the latest with two key positions for the 2022 season:
Inside Iowa's process of evaluating kickers
Contrary to Blom's 5-for-8 and Stevens' 4-for-8 performances in the final spring practice, both were perfect last Saturday connecting on multiple kicks from 40- and 50-plus yards out. Blom, with one year of experience in the program, has been the No. 1 kicker on Iowa's depth charts since spring but the highly touted Stevens is battling closely for placekicking and kickoff duties.
Stevens was an early enrollee this year and is turning the corner after a steep learning curve during spring according to Woods.
"You're seeing a different guy right now," Woods said. "Every day out here at camp is a brand new day for him because he hasn't been in a college camp but I'm happy with where he's progressing. I think he's capable of putting the ball between the uprights and kicking the thing deep so it just comes down to keep challenging, keep testing him."
Woods places a heavy emphasis on routine when measuring his kickers. Saturday's scrimmage served as the closest example that they'll see before the Sept. 3 opener.
"How many (kicks) does it really take you to get warmed up (pregame)?" Woods said. "Then what information do you have to give me: What's your your (yard) line? How good are you? What's your distance for field goals? What's your best kick and kickoff coverage? Some of those things that they just haven't had experience at."
In addition to pregame, Woods wants to see each kicker's routine during the down time when they're not kicking in a game. What's their thought process in preparation during first, second and third downs when the team is on offense and/or in field goal range? They conduct dry runs regularly to simulate game action.
There's also a large investment in mental development. The group meets with Carmen Tebbe, the team's sports psychologist, twice a week to develop routines on managing bad kicks, bad practice days and eliminating outside distractions.
Head coach Kirk Ferentz said after Saturday's scrimmage that both kickers have performed well during the first half of camp and their performance gives him confidence that they could have two solid options this fall.
"It means we got two kickers; that's how I look at that," Ferentz said. "That's if we can continue and they did do a good job. Previous nine (practice) days they've been doing well, but spring it was not really encouraging. I said I think publicly the potential was there a bit but it's the consistency. So now the challenge is to be able to do it on Saturdays when it counts, but this is a good step for them."
Woods noted that the placekicking and kickoff duties are not tied together. That means that there could be a scenario where one kicker handles each position, similar to what Duncan and Shudak did a few years ago.
How did Bruce, DeJean and Moss become final three for returner position?
Even while Jones was on the team in spring practice, Woods stated that there were several players who could be serviceable returners if needed. Once Jones left the program, those names were thrusted into a wide open competition.
Skill players that either took reps during spring behind Jones or expressed interest initially began with a list of over 10 names including: Bruce; DeJean; Moss; TJ Hall; Jamison Heinz; Deavin Hilson; Terry Roberts; Kaden Wetjen and more.
How did a double-digit list whittle down to three main contenders? Woods outlined the process.
"We look at everyone's high school film: 'Did you ever return in high school?'" Woods said. "So when we have that list, we're going to go on the jugs and you're gonna catch these (balls). 'How do you catch?' We teach them all how to catch a kick, a kickoff and then start to whittle it down from there and some guys will say 'coach, I really don't want to do this'."
From there, players naturally separate themselves and in some cases Woods determines that a player would be better suited as a blocker than a return man.
And for the final determiner, who of the remaining players is the most reliable? Expect for the top three finalists to continue competing until the opening game.
"See what kind of decision he makes," Woods said. "Would he return it? Would he fair catch? Can you communicate? And then as we progress, then we'll start to put the whole thing together like putting putting heat on him with the rest of the team. It's never easy to do that kind of stuff."
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.