Special Teams

BY BEN ROSS | SEPTEMBER 26, 2013 5:00 AM

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There was a point in time where special teams appeared to be the bane of existence for the Iowa football team.

Coverages seemed to get blown all the time. Special teamers didn’t stay in their lanes. Attempting an onside kick against Iowa was a freebie.

But with a new season came a new special-team coach for the Iowa football program. Former running backs and special-team coach Lester Erb departed Iowa for the same position at Nevada.

Chris White replaced Erb, who spent his 2012 coaching special teams for the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings.

White had excellent success in Minnesota; the Vikings averaged 9 yards per punt return, and 27 yards per kick return. Marcus Sherels returned one punt for a touchdown in 2012, and Percy Harvin brought a kickoff back 105 yards to the house.

“I enjoy playing for Coach White; I enjoy having him,” Iowa captain James Morris said. “He brings a fresh approach to special teams and I think you’re maybe seeing some of the results in last week’s game.”

Those results Morris is talking about came in the best form possible: touchdowns.

Iowa punt returner and wide receiver Kevonte Martin-Manley took two punts to the house against Western Michigan on Sept. 21, becoming the first Iowa player to accomplish such a feat.

“It was a lot of fun, that’s one word to describe it,” Martin-Manley said. “I was smiling from ear to ear and I was celebrating with the other guys. The first thing is to catch the ball, and then make plays.”

Martin-Manley had a lot to smile about. He ended the day with 184 punt return yards against the Broncos, 18 short of Nile Kinnick’s record, set in 1939.  

Iowa has already exceeded its punt return total yardage from 2012 by 99 yards. Micah Hyde returned 16 punts all of last year, and gained 119 yards. Martin-Manley has fielded seven punts this season, and has gone 218 yards in four games.

“I think we’re moving forward,” Iowa head coach Kirk Ferentz said about the status of his special teams unit in 2013. “And that was one of the good things about Saturday beyond the returns. That’s obvious, that part. But the best part about the returns, Kevonte’s effort was good, but the best part to me was the 10 guys away from the ball were doing a good job. And then there were a lot of the things I think subtly that took place on special teams that were encouraging. We’re not there yet, but at least we’re I think starting to make some strides. That was a concern a couple weeks ago, a big concern.”

And what Ferentz addressed — the 10 guys away from the ball — is what has been biting Iowa in the rear on special teams of years past. But the improvement is there. In 2011 Iowa allowed an average of over 100 kick return yards on kick returns. In 2012 that number dropped by over half to 48 yards allowed per contest.

Iowa’s players noticed the slip in kick coverage efforts, too. Iowa safety Tanner Miller reminisced about the returns former Hawkeyes Tim Dwight and Andy Brodell accumulated during their careers, and noticed how Iowa seemed to deviate from that recipe for success. But Miller, a senior, was also a part of Iowa teams that had the poor special-team record, and is able to see the improvement the Black and Gold have made in that aspect over the years.

“Back in the early 2000s, we were excellent on special teams,” Miller said. “I think for the last four or five years, we’ve kind of gotten away from that. In the off-season, Coach said we were going to spend the needed amount of time on special teams.

“I think we’ve done that and I think we’re starting to see improvement.”

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