Position Preview: Special Teams

Hawkeye Insider begins is Iowa football 2014 position previews with special teams. We take a look at kicker, punter, return men and other aspects of an important phase for the Hawkeyes.

IOWA CITY, Iowa - It's June. It's hot. It's time to talk football.

The general offseason tone as it relates to Iowa football seems clear. The Hawkeyes face an easy schedule and should contend for the Big Ten Western Division title according to many outsiders.

It's a position in which Iowa has found itself throughout the first 15 years under Coach Kirk Ferentz. It's been met with mixed results.

What looks like a favorable slate in June and July might not show up in October and November, when the games actually count. All we have to go on, however, is what we think we know about the Hawkeyes and their opponents. And the outlook can change weekly once the season kicks off.

One thing we can usually count on when Iowa excels under Ferentz is solid play from the special teams. Cliche, maybe, but the Hawkeyes' success usually depends on strong play from all three phases.

Truth be told, it's a hot spot for Iowa entering the season. The unsettled feeling stems from unproven and inconsistent specialists. Their maturity could go a long way in deciding if 2014 becomes a special season or the Hawkeyes fall short of favorable preseason expectations.

It's a good place to start out summer position previews:

KICKER

The Contenders: Marshall Koehn (6-0, 195), 4th year junior; Alden Haffar (5-9, 209), 5th year senior); Mick Ellis (5-9, 190), true freshman.

The Favorite: Koehn has been working behind the departing Mike Meyer for the last three seasons and has a leg up on the competition.

The Breakdown: It's tough to handicap this position without knowing what Ellis can accomplish as a first-year player at a high pressure position. He certainly possesses the pedigree and wouldn't have been given a scholarship had the coaches not believed he could help early. However, awarding a specialist a ride out of high school hasn't always translated into success (Trent Mossbrucker) for Iowa. We'll have to see what Ellis is made of. Haffar offers a powerful leg but accuracy is a question. Koehn lacks a booming foot but can consistently put it through the uprights within his range. Ellis being able to combine Haffar's power with Koehn's efficiency could answer the need here. Perhaps Haffar improves his sharpness or Koehn extends his length. Maybe the former handles deep attempts and the latter the ones within his scope. Ferentz has been reluctant to split kicking duties in the past but new special teams coach Chris White seems to have his ear and a degree of autonomy.

The RWI (Rob's Worry Index): What? You've not heard of the RWI? Makes sense. I just created it. It's personal but feel free to partake. The levels are: Extreme, Significant, Moderate, Faint, Absent. I would put the preseason RWI for Iowa's place kicker position at Significant.

PUNTER

The Contenders: Connor Kornbrath (6-6, 240), true junior; Dillon Kidd (6-2, 230), redshirt junior.

The Favorite: Kornbrath is the incumbent and gets a slight nod.

The Breakdown: Previewing the punter position parallels place kicker in that we don't really know what Kidd brings on this level. Additionally, the coaches added competition by handing out a scholarship at a specialist spot where a returning player retained at least two years of eligibility. You don't do that if you're comfortable with what you having coming back. Perhaps the challenge will lead to Kornbrath becoming more consistent. He's not been terrible but he has been erratic. He ranked ninth in the Big Ten last year with a 40.0 yard average. Not great but it was his propensity for a shank at the most inopportune times that frustrated the staff. Kidd spent two years at Florida State as a walk-on so he's been a part of major college football. He hasn't played at the level yet, though, so it's hard to say how he'll perform in front of 70,000 people. He averaged 38.2 yards on 50 punts for El Camino Community College in California last season with 18 punts being downed inside the 20 and 12 going for fair catches. His father, John Kidd, punted for 16 seasons in the NFL and Dillon does not lack confidence. The Kornbrath-Kidd battle in the spring seemed pretty even and figures to go through August camp. And whomever wins the job going into the campaign shouldn't get too comfortable as the loser figures to keep pushing.

The RWI: Significant.

PUNT RETURNER

The Contenders: Kevonte Martin-Manley (6-0, 205), redshirt senior; Desmond King (5-11, 190), true sophomore; Derrick Mitchell Jr. (6-1, 205), redshirt freshman.

The Favorite: Martin-Manley ranked eighth nationally in punt return average (15.7) and holds a firm grasp on the spot.

The Breakdown: There likely isn't much to see here in terms of drama or competition. If healthy, Martin-Manley will be the guy to start the season. He's reliable, which Ferentz likes, and can deliver a big play, which White covets. It should be noted that his numbers are a little skewed considering he piled up 184 of his 314 return yards and two touchdowns in one game (Western Michigan). A muffed attempt against LSU in the Outback Bowl led to a key Tigers' touchdown. He showed other moments of unsteadiness during the season. He's a fifth-year senior, however, and normal maturity should help with consistency in '14. He'd likely get at least a few mulligans before being replaced.

The RWI: Faint.

PUNT RETURNER

The Contenders: Jordan Canzeri (5-9, 192), redshirt junior; Damond Powell (5-11, 180), redshirt senior; Jonathan Parker (5-8, 180), redshirt freshman; Akrum Wadley (5-11, 180), redshirt freshman; Derrick Mitchell Jr. (6-1, 205), redshirt freshman; Andre Harris (6-0, 180), redshirt freshman.

The Breakdown: White showed Iowa fans and opponents a new look last season, his first running the Hawkeyes special teams. He used a primary kick returner deep and then positioned another return man farther up field and staggered to one side. Jordan Cotton served as the primary returner as a senior in '13. Canzeri was the secondary guy and could slide back into the main position. That decision could come down to how much work it looks like Canzeri will get at running back and how the young players also in competition at this spot develop. Powell certainly possesses the big play ability as do Parker and Wadley to a lesser extent. The Hawkeyes ranked No. 7 in the Big Ten in kick returns (22.0) last year but that was only a 1.1 yards per return off the leader, Wisconsin.

The RWI: Faint.

Extra Points: Casey Kreiter completed his Iowa career without much recognition. That's because he performed as the team's long snapper with few flaws. Redshirt freshman Tyler Kluver is expected to replace Kreiter in the very important role. Incoming walk-on freshman Zach Johnson is expected to be Kluver's competition there…special teams often are where players break through in the Iowa program. Others end up with their main career contributions coming on those units. It's imperative that the coaches find the right mix of underclassmen and veterans to sure them up. Kick coverage has stuck out as a weakness in recent years. In '13, the Hawkeyes ranked ninth in the Big Ten, allowing 37.7 yards per return. Nico Law was expected to be a key contributor here but left the team last week. The Hawkeyes have increased their athleticism in the last few recruiting classes and done a good job retaining players in them so there's reason for optimism.


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