IOWA CITY — When ESPN launched its first Soccer Energy Index (FPI) scores for the 2022 faculty season on Thursday, plenty of of us howled that Nebraska was given the best likelihood of any workforce (at 29.2%) to win the Huge Ten West.
A program that hasn’t gained greater than 5 video games in a season since 2016 doesn’t have the latest monitor report to recommend such a leap. However right here’s why the metrics like Nebraska. Final 12 months, the Huskers averaged 6.44 yards per offensive snap (18th out of 130 FBS groups) and yielded a decent 5.30 per play on protection (forty first nationally). By comparability, West-winning Iowa averaged fewer yards per play (4.67) than it allowed (4.72). But the Huskers went 3-9 general, 1-8 within the Huge Ten.
One of many largest issues that metrics miss is the significance of hidden yardage (and factors) on particular groups. Frankly, the Cornhuskers have, too, underneath Scott Frost. After repeated failures in that space over 4 seasons, Frost has lastly seen the sunshine and for the primary time can have considered one of his 10 assistant coaches at Nebraska devoted solely to particular groups.
In contrast, considered one of Kirk Ferentz’s first strikes in 2018 when the NCAA expanded teaching staffs to 10 full-time assistants was making LeVar Woods a full-time special-teams coordinator. It’s labored out superbly. Woods made an NFL profession out of his prowess on particular groups, and now he’s immersed himself into each side of the job — from a journey to Australia to seek out the perfect punter to understanding the artwork of field-goal holds to a rising pocket book of inventive pretend punts/kicks.
Particular groups are an annual power for the Hawkeyes, and Woods — the definition of a gamers’ coach — deserves a ton of credit score for that.
Likewise, Woods credit Ferentz for emphasizing the significance of particular groups, courting to his first season in 1999 (when Woods was a Hawkeye participant). Faculty soccer’s longest-tenured energetic coach dedicates tons of follow time to particular groups. And at Iowa, these items are sometimes elite.
An enormous special-teams moments flipped every of Iowa’s last two regular-season video games in 2021 — a Charlie Jones 100-yard kick return vs. Illinois and Henry Marchese’s blocked punt for a Kyler Fisher landing at Nebraska. With out these performs, the Hawkeyes do not rally to a West Division title.
Therefore, there are at all times a ton of Hawkeyes to make their mark on this space.
“We’re heading in the right direction with the tradition, the mindset of the place the gamers at,” Woods mentioned throughout a 30-minute information convention this week on particular groups. “Now comes the chance.”
Tory Taylor was a rookie 20 months in the past. Now he’s the previous man.
The Hawkeyes’ robust and affable punter will flip 25 in July and is being requested to guide Woods’ special-teams room. Whereas that’s not one thing Taylor was anticipating, his appeal and humor makes him a preferred voice on the workforce.
One of many issues that amazed him after coming to Iowa from Australia in the summertime of 2020 was the toxicity of some followers on social media or within the stands. He spoke about that matter rather a lot this week and emphasised his method throughout the workforce to be sort and loving towards others.
“I imply, yeah, it’s actually not that onerous to be good, is it?” Taylor mentioned. “That’s simply who I’m, and that’s not simply me saying it to the digital camera. I believe I’m fairly easy-going. Don’t actually take an excessive amount of severely. Life’s too quick. It form of cracks me up when all of the Iowa followers get upset after a loss.”
Taylor made plenty of Hawkeye followers glad by returning for his junior season after averaging 46.1 yards per punt as a sophomore (topping his mark of 44.1 as a freshman, when he was the Huge Ten punter of the 12 months). It wouldn’t be a shock if that is his final 12 months at Iowa; he’s acquired an NFL leg already. Taylor notes that his objective as a junior is “minimizing the hole between my good and unhealthy balls. I solely kicked the one touchback in my freshman 12 months; final 12 months, I believe I had 13 or 14. (It was 13.) That’s one thing I would like to wash up. That actually simply comes again to me making an attempt to be a bit too cute.”
May Cooper DeJean be Iowa’s subsequent holder?
Woods dropped that risk Wednesday, one thing that provides intrigue with Iowa’s willingness to name pretend punts or discipline objectives. The sophomore-to-be was an unimaginable quarterback in highschool, however few know that he was additionally his workforce’s holder … and excellent at it.
Whereas DeJean’s common place at Iowa is defensive again (he’s working at security this spring), he’s amongst three candidates to carry for discipline objectives and PATs within the fall.
“He has a novel capacity with the ball in his arms. I believe that’s a part of that place. That’s a place individuals don’t take into consideration,” Woods mentioned. “Everybody blames the kicker for a missed kick, however should you go and watch and look intently, it’s both off the spot or the lean will not be what he needs or what he anticipated when he strikes the ball.”
The Hawkeyes will miss Ryan Gersonde as their holder. He was beloved by earlier kickers Keith Duncan (a 2019 consensus all-American) and Caleb Shudak (a 2021 third-team AP all-American). That’s why Woods spent eight minutes of his press convention dissecting the artwork of holding and the significance of a constant lengthy snapper (the place sophomore Luke Elkin returns).
It is most seemingly that Taylor will likely be Iowa’s subsequent holder; backup punter Nick Phelps can also be a candidate. If DeJean wins the job, it might be due to his holding capacity, not due to his athleticism.
“It begins with holding the ball and placing it by the uprights. That’s what the field-goal unit is on the sector for,” Woods mentioned. “If he’s the most suitable choice for that, then that’s the way in which we go.”
Who will likely be Iowa’s subsequent kicker?
On Tuesday, as participant interviews had been wrapping up, Shudak was booming discipline objectives for NFL scouts inside Iowa’s indoor facility. Highly effective, lengthy kicks and proper down the center — excessive on the web — each time.
“Caleb is an NFL kicker,” Woods mentioned. “Whoever will get this man goes to be fortunate as all get-out to have him.”
So, whereas it’s unfair to count on any of Iowa’s three placekicker candidates to be nearly as good as Shudak — who linked on 24 of 28 discipline objectives final season, together with 11 makes of 40-plus yards — it’s good to know what to anticipate. Woods mentioned the trio of Lucas Amaya (junior), Aaron Blom (sophomore) or Drew Stevens (true freshman) is just too near name and that the competitors would go into August. They’re in all probability on tempo with the place Shudak was as a freshman or sophomore. Whereas Shudak didn’t win the job again then, he was a promising kicker who intently pushed Duncan and Miguel Recinos.
That’s a great way of claiming these kickers have the potential to be key weapons for the Hawkeyes, however they’re not there but. The psychological facet of kicking is a giant issue. Woods mentioned he’s by no means seen two extra assured kickers underneath strain than Duncan (who made a Huge Ten-record 29 discipline objectives in 2019) or Shudak.
“These guys had been phenomenal at it,” he mentioned. “It takes a very long time. It takes reps, it takes confidence to get to that time. That’s what we’re engaged on.”
The Huge Ten’s high return man … returns.
Charlie Jones was the league’s return specialist of the 12 months in 2021, then gave the Hawkeyes a pleasant present when he selected to train his possibility as a sixth-year senior. So, no query, Jones would be the chief in Iowa’s return recreation, particularly on punts. Jones’ sometimes-daring method is an space Iowa embraces, whilst different groups are sometimes extra comfy signaling for a good catch.
Discovering yardage edges on particular groups is the Iowa approach.
“Charlie provides us an opportunity to attain anytime he has the ball in his arms,” Woods mentioned.
However Jones is hardly alone. Woods listed seven different names who might be in consideration to return kickoffs or punts. Sophomore receiver Arland Bruce IV and DeJean are excessive on the checklist. Others embody sophomore walk-on defensive again Jamison Heinz; senior defensive again Terry Roberts; true freshman cornerback T.J. Corridor; freshman receiver Alec Wick from Iowa Metropolis Regina; and Iowa Western switch receiver Kaden Wetjen.
“There are extra names than we’ve had previously,” Woods mentioned. “A part of that speaks to the tradition right here and the way coach Ferentz runs this program.”
The return recreation will likely be an space of particular groups that can get extra follow time in fall camp. For now, the first focus is on the sector objective and punt items.
Hawkeyes columnist Chad Leistikow has lined sports activities for 27 years with The Des Moines Register, USA TODAY and Iowa Metropolis Press-Citizen. Observe @ChadLeistikow on Twitter.