Hawkeyes look to improve special teams


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When a football squad’s special teams are rarely talked about, it’s usually a good thing.

Iowa’s special teams were a constant subject of discussion in 2010. It was a bad thing.

The painful, repeated blunders factored heavily in no fewer than three of Iowa’s losses, perhaps preventing the Hawkeyes from being in double-digits in the wins column.

Instead, they went 8-5.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz thinks his team was even lucky to finish with that mark considering all the miscues.

“We can’t play special teams next year like we did last year and expect to be playing in a bowl game or having a good year,” he said. “It just won’t work.”

Name virtually any possible bad outcome on a special-team play, and the Hawkeyes fell victim to it in 2010.

Botched kickoff coverage. Missed extra points. Blocked kicks.

The repeated blunders were so costly that even a coach such as Ferentz — whose program thrives on stability — made a specific point to emphasize special-team improvement in the off-season. Even more telling, Ferentz admitted an increased attentiveness to special teams all the way back in spring practice.

“We’ve put a little extra time into our kickoff coverage team,” he said. “We’ve shown some clips, we’ve gone back and reviewed and tried to learn, and we’ll continue that.

“We’ll do whatever we have to do.”

For special-team and running-back coach Lester Erb, that means the march toward improvement — particularly on kick coverage — starts with him.

“I didn’t do a good enough job teaching [kick coverage],” he said at the team’s media day. “I just didn’t do a good enough job getting those guys prepared.”

But he wasn’t on the field missing tackles or not running to the ball. He’s not buying any of the inexperience-related excuses, either. While injuries forced Iowa’s special teams to enlist many underclassmen, the same Hawkeyes — albeit younger ones — played together on those units for most of the year.

Erb has seen the potential, noting the mostly suffocating kick coverage in Iowa’s 27-24 Insight Bowl victory against Missouri.

Now, the 12th-year assistant wants consistency.

“A lot of that comes down to just the attitude that we bring to games on Saturdays,” Erb said. “There were some games we just didn’t have the same attitude going out there. That starts with myself, and we just have to do a better job of getting the right guys out there and making sure they have the right attitude when they’re out on the field.”

Ferentz said the staff will likely ask many younger players — including true freshmen — to suit up for special-team duty again this year.

If the execution is lacking again, there’s at least one veteran willing to take someone’s place.

Senior Shaun Prater will line up on the outside in both Iowa’s punt defense and punt protection personnel packages. A starting cornerback, he had no problem volunteering himself for additional work.

“I love special teams — I love football, period,” he said. “I’m a football player. Just put me on the field, I’m going to try my best to get my team the ‘W.’ ”

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