Posted by: marcmwm | April 1, 2009

Four downs with the special teams

Iowa place kicker Daniel Murray (1) celebrates after making a 31-yard field goal to give Iowa the a one point lead over Penn State in the closing seconds quarter of their game Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008 at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa won, 24-23. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Iowa place kicker Daniel Murray (1) celebrates after making a 31-yard field goal to give Iowa the a one point lead over Penn State in the closing seconds quarter of their game Saturday, Nov. 8, 2008 at Kinnick Stadium. Iowa won, 24-23. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

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.

This from a recruting story I wrote on signing day in February:

“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.)

Caption: Iowa punter Ryan Donahue (5) poses for a photo during the team's media day Monday, Aug. 4, 2008 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

Caption: Iowa punter Ryan Donahue (5) poses for a photo during the team's media day Monday, Aug. 4, 2008 in Iowa City. (Brian Ray/The Gazette)

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Responses

  1. I don’t see any problem with rotating kickers, as long as both guys are aware of their roles. Assuming he’s recovered from that tailspin he went into after Murray got the call in the Penn State game, Mossbrucker’s definitely the more accurate of the two on shorter kicks. The problem is that he just doesn’t have much a leg. For that reason, having Murray around to handle longer kicks and kickoffs (where his contributions are really underrated, I think) is really valuable. It is kinda rough spending two scholarships on the kicker spot (at least, I think Murray is on scholarship now), but it’s still a pretty valuable part of the game.

  2. Very valuable part of the game, you’re right.

    I don’t know why, but I just don’t see KF signing off on two kickers. He likes things clean. But, I might be wrong, too.

    What do you think, Adam, about the fact that Mossbrucker didn’t try a 40-yarder last year? Do you think we’ve seen enought to gauge his leg strength? I’d like to see more. Don’t know when, but it seems like it’d be something coaches would want to see too.

    Murray’s leg strength surprised me. He’s not a big guy.

  3. I think the fact that he didn’t try anything at that distance is probably a good sign that his leg strength isn’t all that great. Or at least that the coaches don’t seem to think so, and I’m sure they’ve seen him kick plenty.

    Murray, on the other hand, has a great leg. His accuracy left something to be desired in the past, but he’s always boomed kickoffs. It is kinda surprising given how tiny he is, but I think it’s probably technique as much as anything. He was a stud soccer player in high school with a bunch of DI offers, if I recall correctly.

  4. Yes, Adam, Murray had a full ride to Kentucky to play soccer. I believe he’s an engineering student (might be wrong on that), and that’s part of the reason why he walked on at Iowa.

    And yes on the perception of Mossbrucker’s leg. I think a better example is KF’s decision not to kick FGs at Michigan State.

    Two scholarship kickers? It’s not industry standard, but it’ll might be if it works.

  5. I love that little tidbit about Donahue only having only 12 punts returned for 60 yds., that is good kicking and coverage.

    Also, give the ST’s a little break for the goofer KR, they were on the field ALL day and probably got a little winded. 55-0 can do that to you.

    ST’s are gonna be fun to watch again this year. One great thing about KF’s squads, and good teams in general, when they’re playing well every facet of the team is fun to watch and our ST’s have been fun to see over the years.

  6. I know, E. Those poor guys ran a mile that night. It was probably the second team by the time it was 55-0.

  7. 55-0. It isn’t next season yet and I really loved that game as much as any we played last year so I am going to post 55-0, again.

    That game showed me KF had righted the ship. To roll in to Minny for their last game at that dump and to do that was amazing.

    But it wasn’t as amazing as Lois Feldman!

  8. Lois could’ve had her own website.

  9. Website? Dude, she could have made her own movie.

  10. Weird, wild stuff.

  11. I’m more amazed by this:

    “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.)”

    I had no idea that it’s been 6 years now, 7 if it goes into January!

    WOW.

  12. OK, that stat is bad, but an impressive one in Iowa’s favor is the last time an opponent returned a kickoff for a TD — Herb Haygood, 100 yards, Michigan State 10/31/01.

    That’s a streak of 95 games. So, the next kick off return for a TD either way is going to be somewhat noteworthy.

  13. [...] Four downs with the special teams. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz watches his team workout during their practice Wednesday, March 25 at the Kenyon Football Practice Facility on the University of Iowa campus. (The Gazette, Brian Ray) Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)Back from Arizona . . .Racism In Move To School To HarlemSupreme Court Rejects H.S. Coach’s Desire to Kneel with Players’High School Musical 3: Senior Year’ is Now on DVD! [...]

  14. i dont believe the coaches will let jayme murphy play kickoff anymore, which really sucks because he was iowa’s best special teamer. However, after 4 concussions you have to look at the his health and jayme’s a smart kid, he understands that.

  15. Yeah, I wonder about that, Erik.

    I did notice that Murphy looked full bore in the April 1 photo gallery from Iowa spring practice. He had a helmet on and was running through drills as an RB.

    I hope that’s a good sign. He’s a great kid.

    http://www.hawkeyesports.com/sports/m-footbl/spec-rel/iowa-fb-camp-09.html#

  16. It’s admirable that he wants to keep playing, but you kind of wonder if someone needs to just sit down with him and tell him it’s time to hang it up. The long term effects of concussions are a really scary thing, and he’s had a ton of them in a very short period of time. I really hope they keep him out of the gunner spot at the very least. He’s amazing at it, but it’s just not worth the risk.


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