QUICK LOOK BACK: After a lackluster 2007, Iowa’s special teams stabilized last season. Everything from kick return (came together with RB Jewel Hampton averaging 23.3 a return) to punt return (WR Andy Brodell had Iowa in the top three of the Big Ten) to field goals (13 of 19 and beat Penn State, soothing many, many wounds) improved by some degree in ’08.
Kicker Daniel Murray, now a junior, suffered a sprained ankle before the Pitt game, missed a 35-yarder in a 21-20 loss and wasn’t heard from until it was time to beat No. 3 Penn State with a 31-yarder in national TV with one second left. Then-true freshman Trent Mossbrucker took the job and ran with it, booting 13 of 15 before Penn State. One of them will be the field goal kicker this year.
Throw away the key at punter for 2009-10. Junior Ryan Donahue is a consistent weapon. He averaged 41.6 yards a kick and was a Ray Guy semifinalist and second-team all-Big Ten pick last season.
Kick coverage took a hit against Minnesota (KR Troy Stoudermire returned nine for 283 in a 55-0 rout) but even it finished middle-of-the Big Ten on the field position stats. Jayme Murphy, a tenacious gunner on kick coverage, had his role diminished after suffering a concussion. His status is unclear.
Senior cornerback Chris Rowell carved out a niche on ST last season. This is still the unit where players can earn trust and respect and jump a few rungs on the the depth chart. Sophomore safety David Cato might be in that mode.
FOURTH DOWN — CONCERNS: Iowa now has two scholarship kickers. You know what they say when teams have quarterback controversies. It has two, but does it really have any? Iowa has two kickers in Mossbrucker and Murray. Between the two, the Hawkeyes should find one.
Mossbrucker, sophomore, was a more-than-respectable 13 of 15 before a certain 31-yarder against Penn State. You all know what happened. It was a windy, dreary day. It was the penultimate play of the game. So, coach Kirk Ferentz tells Murray to warm up. When it came down to it, Ferentz looked to Murray and his experience.
After he was passed over in favor of Murray, Mossbrucker missed two PATs against Purdue. He re-gained PAT duties in Iowa’s 55-0 victory over Minnesota but yielded those duties to Murray for the Outback Bowl.
Mossbrucker is in the Iowa record books. His 70 points last season (13 of 15 FGs and 31 of 33 PATs) were an Iowa freshman scoring record, beating Nate Kaeding’s true freshman mark of 62 and Jeff Skillett’s freshman record of 64.
Where does he stand going into 2009?
Murray finished 6 of 9. A closer look at his numbers shows that Iowa coaches might shade to Murray for distance. He made 4 of 6 attempts from 30 to 49 yards. Mossbrucker was 6 of 8 from 30 to 39 yards with no attempts from beyond 40. Murray’s long was 45; Mossbrucker’s was 39. Murray missed a 45-yard in the Outback Bowl and was 0-for-1 from 50-plus. Murray also handled the kickoffs.
There was also the Michigan State game. Granted, this was very early in Mossbrucker’s career. But instead of trying field goals on fourth downs from MSU’s 27- and 22-yard lines, the Hawkeyes failed on fourth-down attempts and the Hawkeyes fell.
Ferentz said in normal playing conditions he’d prefer setting up for field goals with the ball inside the 25-yard line. At the time, Mossbrucker was 19 with a career-long FG of 39 yards.
“I’ve got every confidence in him, and I don’t want that to be lost over the decisions the other day,” Ferentz said. “They had really nothing to do with him. Maybe a little bit to do with him, but it’s not like we are going to — he doesn’t have training wheels on his bike. He’s playing and he’s like the rest of the guys, and I’ve got every confidence that he can handle the situations that are out there.”
There doesn’t appear to be any clarity here, but that’s OK. It’s April.
THIRD DOWN — ADDITIONS/SUBTRACTIONS: This is tough to say for special teams. Hampton showed some promise at kick return last season. WR Derrell Johnson-Koulianos flashed before that. Do you see either of them returning kicks next season? Hampton might be the Hawkeyes’ No. 1 RB. DJK will be on the hunt for his third consecutive season of leading the team in receiving. They’re listed as No. 1 kick returners — now. Check back later.
With Brodell gone, junior Colin Sandeman will likely be your new punt returner. He returned five last season. Could a William Lowe or a Shaun Prater or Amari Spievey work their way in there? Sure, why not? But Sandeman has the lead in the clubhouse.
Freshmen who could be possibilities for special teams include ATH Josh Brown, CB Micah Hyde, WR Jordan Cotton or WR Keenan Davis.
One freshman who seems to definitely be in the mix for kick returner is Sioux City Heelan’s Brandon Wegher.
“During one of his unofficial visits, Wegher watched some special teams video with Lester Erb, the running backs coach who’s also co-special teams coach. The video was Iowa’s kick return team, which only found a little footing last season after freshman running back Jewel Hampton became comfortable in the gig.
“He said they’ve got a spot for me on kick return next year,” Wegher said. “I think if I get to the field next season, it’ll probably be returning kicks. It was cool to hear that from a coach.”
SECOND DOWN — STRENGTHS: What’s your favorite Donahue stat? The 41.6 was nice. I kind of like the 11 punts of 50 or more yards. That’s got to feel good as a punter, when your effort draws ohs and ahs from the bleachers. Also, 19 of his 50 punts were downed inside the 20-yard line. My favorite stat? Donahue had just 12 punts returned for a grand total of 60 yards. That’s 5 yards a return, ninth in the nation and first in the Big Ten. That reflects glowing overall health of a team. The offense moves the ball deep enough to score or attempt a FG. Or returners are forced to call fair catches. If Iowa can come close to that number again, obviously, it’s a boon.
If Hampton does return kicks, he’s a strength. The unit improved almost immediately when he won the job. Plus, no fumbles.
Kicker? It can be a strength. With a year under their belts, Mossbrucker and Murray should be counted more this year than last. That’s how it’s supposed to go, but kicker is trickier than anything else.
FIRST DOWN — THE PLAY: Job 1 is kicker, obviously. There’s a few ways it can go. Erb could just pick one or the other or it could go the platoon route. Murray seemed to be the choice for long FGs last season, but Mossbrucker didn’t attempt a FG more than 40 yards, so there’s no read on his distance.
I don’t think Ferentz believes in the split. It’s just not his style, the uncertainty when a kick is from a certain range. I expect someone to win the job out of camp, with the competition probably going at least through the non-conference schedule. It worked (pretty much) at QB that way last season.
Special teams were a trademark of the 2002 and 2004 Big Ten co-champions. It also reflects the overall health and depth of a roster. Great depth in the secondary and at linebacker should boost the return and coverage units. Special teams should continue to rise.
Starters — Murray (K), Donahue (P), Wegher and Paki O’Meara (KR), Sandeman (PR)
Next — Mossbrucker (K), Eric Guthrie (P), Jeff Brinson and DJK (KR), Spievey (PR)
Incoming — Wegher
Surprise — Wegher ends Iowa’s streak of 75 games without a kick return for a TD. (Yes, the C.J. Jones’ Orange Bowl return was the last one. This is getting sort of Tampa Bay Buccaneers-esque.)