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Kickoff coverage a strength for Hawks

BY JORDAN GARRETSON | OCTOBER 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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Iowa kicked the ball off eight times against Indiana. Each time, the Hoosiers' return man found himself in a swarm of Black and Gold uniforms moments after making the catch. And another moment later, he found himself planted into the Kinnick Stadium turf, courtesy of one of those uniforms. Indiana averaged just 14.5 yards per return on the day.

Suffocating kickoff coverage similar to that on Oct. 22 is slowly becoming the rule for Iowa instead of the exception.

Iowa allowed an average of 24.46 yards per return through the season's first two games. But since the start of Big Ten play, opponents are averaging only 15.72 yards per return.

"We're on the right road," Kirk Ferentz said. "… It's a real credit to our players — they're working hard at it. That's one area — you can see on film — that we've really improved in."

Those strides are a welcome relief for the 13th-year Iowa coach after special-team struggles figured prominently into many of the team's losses in 2010. The Hawkeyes missed extra-point attempts, allowed fake punts that went for first downs, and of course, were horrible on kickoff coverage. At its worst, the unit allowed a 100-yard return for a touchdown in a 34-27 loss at Arizona.

Numerous factors have been at the root of the recent improvement. The return from injury of sophomore cornerback B.J. Lowery bolstered the group. He has recorded two tackles on kickoffs in two games since coming back.

But he cites another difference from last year — energy.

"We got some freshmen out there who aren't afraid to go out on the field and hit somebody," Lowery said.

Talk to Lowery or his teammates more, and the name of one particular true freshman continues to pop up: Nico Law.

The 6-1, 180-pound safety has tallied nine tackles in his first seven career games, most of them coming on kickoff coverage. The Clinton, Md., native is used to making tackles — he racked up 106 as a high-school senior last fall.

Shaun Prater said Law is "always the first guy down there" on kickoff.

"He's blowing guys out by about 10, 15 yards," the senior corner said. "He's just blowing up the [blocking] wedges."

But even Law's progression — like the rest of the unit — has been steady.

"He's really bought in," Ferentz said. "Three weeks ago, he ran down there hard, but he didn't know what he was doing, so he ran to the wrong spot. In three, four weeks' time, he's really improved. There are a lot of other guys like that, too, so it's encouraging to see that."

Despite his status as a defensive starter, Prater said in the preseason he would volunteer for kick-coverage duty if the unit performed poorly again.

That hasn't been necessary.

"They are doing amazing," Prater said. "I think everyone is stepping up."

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