Happy returns for Hawkeyes football's Cotton


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Jordan Cotton received a text message from his father, Marshall, on Oct. 20.

It was Marshall Cotton’s birthday. And the former Hawkeye player wanted to see his son score a touchdown against Penn State as a present.

“So I did that for him,” Jordan Cotton said and laughed. “He was happy for me. But he would’ve been more happy if we got the ‘W.’ ”

There wasn’t much to be happy about that night, as Iowa suffered a 38-14 drubbing at the hands of Penn State. But the one “bright spot,” head coach Kirk Ferentz said, was Cotton’s continued emergence as a big-play kick returner.

Iowa had just fallen into a 38-0 hole early in the fourth quarter when Cotton trotted out onto the field for his fourth kick return of the game. And this time, he saw a bit of daylight as he headed up the field.

“I saw a big, gaping hole from the blockers. That unit’s been doing real well,” he said. “I just saw a seam, and I took it.”

Ninety-two yards later, the blowout loss was just a little bit more palatable for the Hawkeyes.

It was the second-consecutive week that Cotton burst through a seam for a long kick-return touchdown. But this time, it counted.

Against Michigan State on Oct. 13, Cotton had a touchdown wiped off the board by an illegal-block penalty against tight end Ray Hamilton, who committed the penalty far away from the play.

Cotton said that play gave the return unit confidence that it could break a big one, which the players proved just a week later.

Quarterback James Vandenberg said Cotton was a “kick-return phenom” in high school. The junior came to Iowa with big expectations as a receiver, but he has had a difficult time finding his way onto the field early in his career. He seems to have found his role now, and fellow receiver Keenan Davis indicated it has been a long time coming.

“He’s taking the opportunity and being confident with it,” Davis said. “He’s a guy who knows maybe he should’ve been there a few years ago.”

Cotton agreed, but said Iowa coaches were right not to let him return kicks until he had improved as a wideout.

“I definitely thought I could have contributed a lot earlier on the kick-return unit, but it was the coaches’ decision,” he said. “I wasn’t producing well as a receiver yet, so I had to prove myself first there.”

Cotton made that progress on offense. He has emerged as Iowa’s third receiver with 6 catches on the season for 114 yards. He also might have provided the highlight of Iowa’s season so far, with a 47-yard touchdown catch on a flea-flicker play against Minnesota.

So coaches let him do what he might do best: return kicks. Davis said Cotton thinks of himself as a “return specialist” now, and Vandenberg said he had given the Hawkeyes “a real spark.”

Cotton, meanwhile, is just happy to be out there.

“It’s been a fun year for me so far, getting to contribute a lot more than I have in the past,” he said. “I’ve just got to keep moving forward and getting better.”

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