If you go to most sites covering college teams you're probably bound to find the group of specialists, or special teams in general, towards the bottom of their position rankings. Not so here. Iowa State boasts one of the best set of special teams units in the Big XII and is light years ahead of where they were under former coaches Dan McCarney and Gene Chizik. The only question mark that remains in this group is at punter, and given that we've seen a freshman punter step in before and perform at a high level I have no doubt it can happen again.
The transformation on special teams under Rhoads has been nothing short of amazing. We often forget that the early specials teams groups were coordinated by Courtney Messingham (and they were't a Mess!), but since Shane Burnham took over the groups have performed at another level.
The Cyclones had two legitimate kick returns for touchdowns last year after Jarvis West took one back against Texas Tech and DeVondrick Nealy did the same against TCU. Iowa State finished a respectable 48th in the country in average kickoff return length, and their two return TDs were second only to New Mexico. The return defense ranked 19th nationally despite Edwin Arceo's shorter leg, and while they gave up one return TD it really doesn't count in our mind... because Baylor.
Punting was more of the same for this group. Iowa State finished 48th in net punting with only eight touchbacks on the year, but here's the classic case of stats and their ability to lie.
The Cyclones finished 103rd(!) in punt return defense after allowing 182 yards on only 16 punt returns last season. They allowed return touchdowns to Baylor and Oklahoma, and those returns of 52 and 91 yards, respectively, are outliers. Remove those 143 yards from the equation and suddenly Iowa State has allowed 39 yards on 14 punts, or a 2.8 yards per return average, which would have been good enough for 4th in the country.
The fact I just dedicated that much space to punting is alarming, so it's time to move on.
|DEPTH CHART: SPECIALISTS|
|1st String||P||Holden Kramer||RFr||6'3"||182|
|The Other Punter: Collin Downing (P, Fr)|
Or in this case, leaders. The return game is going to be the focal point of the special teams groups this year and you start with the halfback tandem of Aaron Wimberly and Nealy. Right now those two will be looked upon to key another strong return game, but don't sleep on West, who was shining on both kick and punt returns prior to his injury last season.
All three men will get their chances to return kicks, and West likely has the punt return duties pinned down. With those three receiving kicks or punts you have a great potential for a game breaking play every time the ball is put in the air. As long as the health of these three remains positive then the return game once again becomes a strength for the Cyclones.
The X Factor
The logical choice here is freshman punter Collin Downing, but I'm going to cheat and cover him in the section below. In reality the real X factor for the special teams units is going to be Cole Netten. He finished the year strong by hitting seven of his last nine attempts, and the two misses came early in the West Virginia game where he proved to be clutch down the stretch. Netten has missed only one extra point attempt in his career (33 of 34) and is quietly washing away the memories of crossing your fingers when a kick was attempted.
Netten doesn't have the biggest leg in the world and is only three of seven from beyond 40 in his career, but some of that was the product of an offense that would consistently stall outside of the red zone. Some improvements on his strength and technique in the off season will help him with the longer kicks, but the real strides will be made with an offense that can drive deep into opponent's territory.
Dare I say it, but if Netten keeps it up the kicking game might become a strength.
The New Guys
Collin Downing meet the Cyclones. Cyclones meet Collin Downing, your new hockey playing punter that is going to impersonate Kirby Van Der Kamp.
The Key to Success
Once the team settles on the punter I think things are lined up for success. The most dangerous returners from last year are back, Netten is only going to get better at his craft, and Rhoads and company have shown that they can recruit the right type of player to be special teams all stars before moving on to real roles in the offense and defense.
Ideally we would like to see the three headed monster of offense, defense, and special teams working together to create great field position for both sides of the ball. Rhoads and his staff knows that field position is going to play a vital role for a new offense and a young defense, and if the special teams units can chip in there then it will go a long way to contributing to another bowl berth.