Whenever you see that headline on a football story, it’s always about kicking.
The 62 games since the last kick return stat floors me.
This was Friday’s story.
IOWA CITY — You’ll just have to believe Kirk Ferentz. His kickers aren’t as scary as they were during the open scrimmage, the public’s one look at the state of Iowa football during fall camp.
He swears they’re not.
“People probably think I’m crazy,” Ferentz said.
Sophomore Daniel Murray and true freshman Trent Mossbrucker combined to go 14 of 26 at field goals, including 4-for-12 from 40 yards and out, during the Hawkeyes’ Aug. 16 practice at Kinnick Stadium. Their final attempts of the day were from 44 yards. Murray pushed both wide right; Mossbrucker went wide left and dropped his last shot short of the crossbar.
“I think both of them are doing a great job out there,” Ferentz said. “Although that’s contrary to what everybody saw a week ago Saturday, because that was clearly the worst day for both of them. I mean, that was discouraging. But for the big, big picture, they’ve really done a good job and they’re competing well and doing a nice job in both regards.”
As of Wednesday, the job was still unsettled. Ferentz said Murray will handle kickoffs, but he doesn’t know who the first field goal will go to.
“At least from the place kicking standpoint, I’m a lot more optimistic than maybe I would have been a couple weeks ago,” Ferentz said.
The last time Iowa fans saw Murray, a sophomore from Iowa City Regina, he missed two extra points in the Hawkeyes’ 28-19 loss to Western Michigan in the 2007 finale. Those points didn’t kill the Hawkeyes, but still, PATs should be gimme putts for kickers and Murray knows that.
“It’s very frustrating because it’s something that should be as routine as it gets in football,” Murray said. “That was one of the things, just move on past it. It’s a very frustrating and disappointing moment, but it’s just a matter of moving on.”
And that’s been a concentration for him this off-season — picking up and moving on.
Ferentz has said since spring that Murray really showed him something in his debut at Wisconsin last season. Considering all the variables — prime time, ABC, night game, in front of 80,000 hostile Camp Randall Stadium fans — it was an impressive performance for a freshman, hitting 2 of 3 field goals, including a 41-yarder, and handling kickoff duties. His only blemish was a blocked 36-yarder in the third quarter.
Instead of grinding over every little detail, Murray just went out and kicked.
“Wisconsin was an interesting situation,” said Murray, who finished 7 of 10 in field goals last season, including 3-for-4 from 40-plus. “I went out and did what I knew I could do. I didn’t really overthink anything. I just went in there and basically kicked the ball.
“I think that helped me out quite a bit. As the season went on, I tried to develop a routine and started to think maybe ‘do this’ instead of going out and just kicking. I think Wisconsin was just a good eye opener, just set up a routine but don’t worry about it too much.”
Last season, with Murray and Austin Signor handling the placekicking, the Hawkeyes finished 10th in the Big Ten in field goals with a .625 percentage (10 of 16) and last in PATs (24 of 28, .825).
In the spring, it was Signor and Murray. Signor has since transferred to Eastern Illinois. Now, it’s Murray and Mossbrucker. The Hawkeyes signed Mossbrucker to a scholarship last February. He made 27 of 38 field goals in his career at Mooresville (Ind.) High School.
“Overall in camp, I think we were very good, especially compared to where we were in the spring and even last fall,” Murray said. “This year, going into it, I think we’re more confident going out there and not being, ‘Oh well, I hope we can perform.’ I think we both know we’re capable of performing and how consistent we can be.”
Murray also had a scholarship offer coming out of Regina — a soccer scholarship from the University of Kentucky. Instead, he walked on, and remains a walk-on, to kick field goals for the Hawkeyes.
“There’s a stadium (full of people),” Murray said. “That and the opportunity to play past college. In soccer, it’s very minimal. Football you at least have a greater opportunity of making it.”
The job could certainly be split. Ferentz said Mossbrucker might have the stronger leg, so he could earn the 40-plus part of it. Murray could get the 30 yards and in.
Murray has the Wisconsin experience. Mossbrucker has the August open practice.
Ferentz has to pick.
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5 special teams players to watch
Iowa’s special teams ruled the Big Ten from 2002 to 2004, helping the Hawkeyes to shares of Big Ten titles in those years.
The last couple years, the performance has sagged. Iowa’s brand of football — high percentage offense and bend-don’t-break defense — demands better-than-average performance out of special teams.
Here are five players who could resuscitate Iowa’s special teams:
Derrell Johnson-Koulianos, WR, 6-1, 205
Johnson-Koulianos first showed a natural feel for kick returns against Wisconsin last season, breaking a 44-yarder that eventually led to a fourth quarter field goal. One of the lost stats from last season’s 6-6 thud was Johnson-Koulianos’ kick returns. He finished fifth in the Big Ten with 23.7 yards a return. He’ll be joined on kickoffs by sophomore wide receiver Paul Chaney. Iowa hasn’t returned a kick for a TD in 62 games (2003 Orange Bowl).
Ryan Donahue, P, 6-3, 180
Donahue started slowly last season, with a shank a game, but he rebounded and is now on track to become Iowa’s next great punter. While setting a Big Ten record with 86 punts, he still managed to average 41.1 yards a kick, sixth in the league. He earned Big Ten player of the week against Michigan State with an 82-yard boot that stands as second-longest in school history.
Andy Brodell, WR, 6-3, 202
No, Brodell hasn’t broken a punt return for a TD in his career, but he was darn close last season with 56- and 49-yard returns in Iowa’s first two games. During his career, Brodell has averaged 12.6 yards on 28 returns, which would’ve been good for second in the Big Ten last season.
Amari Spievey, CB, 6-0, 190
Spievey did a lot of damage on special teams at Iowa Central Community College. He returned two kicks for TDs and also blocked four punts. Blocked four punts! Was Iowa’s last blocked punt Sean Considine in the 2005 Capital One Bowl?
Jayme Murphy, RB, 5-11, 207
Murphy won Iowa’s special teams award last season, compiling seven tackles and maybe that many big hits on kick coverage. Murphy is somewhere on Iowa’s depth chart at running back, but if he never plays a down there, he’s still made himself an essential on special teams.
— Marc Morehouse