Special teams still a question mark for Hawkeyes

Aug. 8, 2007

by Sean Neugent

IOWA CITY — Special teams is one of the bigger question marks regarding the 2007 University of Iowa football team, where inexperience is prevailing at the kicker and punter positions.

The Hawkeye coaching staff has yet to determine who it likes at any of the special teams positions. Within the next few weeks UI Coaches Lester Erb and Darrell Wilson will have some tough decisions to make as to who they want at each position.

“We have a lot of areas on our football team right now where we have strengths and we also have areas where we’re going to be young and inexperienced, especially on special teams,” UI Coach Kirk Ferentz said. “That’s an area we’ve got to improve upon this season if we’re going to have a good season, and that’s going to be a collective effort.”

The UI kicking game has been sturdy the past few years with former home-grown players Nate Kaeding of Coralville (Iowa City West High School) and Kyle Schlicher of Ankeny. Kaeding is now one of the premier kickers in the NFL, which isn’t much of a surprise after his near-perfect tenure with the Hawkeyes. Schlicher followed Kaeding’s footsteps and was “Mr. Clutch” before experiencing a drop-off in 2006. Schlicher converted 13 of 20 field goals with a long of 45 yards during his senior season. In-state talent has worked well in the past at the kicking position, but UI coaches do not limit their recruiting of specialist to the state of Iowa.

The front-runner and likely candidate to replace Schlicher is Austin Signor, another in-state product from Urbandale. Signor, a sophomore, has some experience, going 2-for-2 on field goals last season with a long of 41. Daniel Murray, a freshman from Iowa City Regina, is also contending for a starting job. Signor has a powerful leg and was used primarily as the kickoff specialist a year ago with 16 touchbacks in 48 attempts. The touchback totals across the nation will likely decline after the NCAA moved the ball from the 35-yard line to the 30 in order to promote more lengthy returns.

“It’s going to be a huge change that every college football team will have to prepare for,” Signor said. “It’s going to make it harder for kickers — everyone has to prepare the best they can.”

“The first time Austin and I were lining up together we were kind of like `Man that’s far away’,” Murray said. “They’re trying to get more kick returns so I guess we’ll just have to find a way to kick it farther.”

Erb was straightforward with his special teams goal.

“We’re going to kick it, we’re going to cover it, and we’re going to return it,” Erb said.

Former punter Adam Fenstermaker also graduated leaving a hole in that department. The punting game consists of two freshmen — Ryan Donahue of Evergreen Park, Ill., and Eric Guthrie from Nevada. Last season Fenstermaker punted 56 times for an average of 37.6 yards and a long of 53. He had19 balls land inside the 20-yard line.

“We always put a special emphasis on special teams. We choose guys who step up and have an attitude about them.”
UI Coach Lester Erb

“I don’t feel a lot of pressure,” Donahue said. “I just need to do the things I have been doing and I should be fine.”

In high school Donahue set a state record with a 90-yard punt in a playoff game. He was named first team USA Today All-American and participated in the US Army All-American game.

It is still unclear who will be returning the kickoffs and punts. Likely candidates for kickoff returns are running backs Damian Sims and Albert Young and receivers Andy Brodell, Dominique Douglas and Anthony Bowman. Sims took a majority of the returns last year (10 for 184 yards). The likely candidates for punt returns are Brodell and Douglas. Douglas had 14 returns for 143 yards, while Brodell had 13 for 138 yards.

“That’s something we’ll go through camp and it will be a competition like everything else,” Erb said. “There are plenty of guys back there who will get some looks.”

The coaches will eventually fill the gaps before the opener against Northern Illinois on Sept. 1 at Soldier Field in Chicago.

“We always put a special emphasis on special teams,” Erb said. “We choose guys who step up and have an attitude about them. It’s our job to find those guys and get them on the field.”

The cupboard isn’t completely bare — The Hawkeyes will boast a veteran at long snapper, where senior Daniel Olszta returns as a two-year letterwinner. He is backed-up by senior Clint Huntrods, a native of Collins.

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