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2018 Position Preview: Special Teams

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Who will kick off to kick off the season?!

Special teams, indeed.

2018 brings new rules, new faces, and question marks abound. Iowa State lost veterans in three critical positions, and just one week removed from the first game of the season, many of those questions still linger.

New-look kickoff rules will shake things up early in the season, and teams nation-wide will need to learn how to adjust and see what strategy works best.

In an effort to reduce the risk of injury on the most entertaining dangerous sequence in the sport, fair catches inside the 25-yard line will now result in a touchback. Keep in mind that a kickoff fair catch will be treated the same as a punt, so if it’s fumbled it cannot be advanced - the ball will be placed at the spot of the recovery.

From a personnel perspective, the 2017 ISU unit was strong – consistent enough to rank in the middle of the pack in nearly every category in the Big 12. All things considered, a repeat performance in 2018 would be a success in multiple areas.

Departures:

A number of key positions departed after last season. P Colin Downing is gone after a very dependable career - he averaged 40 yards per kick over his four-year career, and even boomed a 67-yarder back in 2016. PK Garrett Owens leaves another specialist void, as the Oregon State transfer hit just over 77 percent of his field goal attempts in his only year of eligibility in Ames. On top of that, he was a perfect 45-for-45 on extra points.

And who can forget the sure hands of Trever Ryen, who notched a touchdown on 18 returns last season? He ranked third in the Big 12 with an average of 10.1 yards per punt return.

Needless to say, there’s work to be done.

New Guys:

P Corey Dunn has garnered much of the attention thus far, and just recently was named to the Ray Guy preseason award watch list - not bad for never having booted a ball in FBS competition. The 25-year-old Australian has three years of eligibility left, and grew up playing Aussie Rules football. By most accounts, Dunn has both the leg and the precision.

In a recent media session, special teams coach Joe Houston raved about his accuracy. A somewhat obscure question likening Dunn’s ability to that of punting in Madden led to this gem from Houston, “I’ve never played Madden … but if it’s old school like the coffin-corner type of deal, that is a lot like what he can do from various parts of the field.”

Someone get this man an Xbox!

K Brayden Narveson is adding intrigue to a three-way battle as kicker. The Scottsdale, Ariz. native was 10-for-15 on field goal attempts in his senior year of high school, with his long being 58 yards. He was 40-for-43 on extra point attempts.

LS Connor Guess was a Class 1A first-team selection as a defensive lineman in 2017 in Iowa, and was a top-100 long snapper recruit. There is, however, a lot of competition at the position already given the return of both Quinn Sontag and Steve Wirtel, so it’s not likely he will see much action, barring injuries.

Leader of the Pack:

This is exciting. We finally welcome back Kene Nwangwu, who is absolutely explosive with the ball. He missed last year with an Achilles injury, but as a freshman in 2016 Nwangwu averaged 26.4yards, in 12 games, including a touchdown against West Virginia.

It will be interesting to see how things shake out with the new kickoff rules. Expect to see teams attempt pooch-style kicks more often to entice a fair catch call.

Dark Horse:

As of the time of this writing, the punt return position is completely up in the air. Houston indicated last week that D’Andre Payne, Brian Peavy, Lawrence White, Tarique Milton and Deshaunte Jones could all see action. Any of those would likely find some success in the position, but our special teams dark horse is Milton.

Through fall camp, Milton has been trying to find his niche as a receiver, locked in a battle with Jones in the slot. Returning punts may just be his calling. Payne and Jones are the front-runners given their proven skill set, but Milton has shown the hands, speed, agility, and intelligence to make things interesting.

2018 Projection:

There are more question marks than usual in the special teams unit – so here’s how it breaks down:

K/PK – Surprisingly, it’s a three-man race for kickoffs and place-kicking. Narveson, Chris Francis and Connor Assalley have all excelled during camp, so it seems no matter which way things go, we won’t be relegated to watching the student section cross its collective fingers during extra point attempts.

Francis handled kickoffs all of last season and amassed touchbacks almost 57 percent of the time, so expect him to resume those duties in 2018. From a PK perspective, though, he is just as green as the rest of the candidates, having only hit one extra point in his career, against Texas Tech in 2015 (100 percent accuracy!). Houston indicated the race is razor-thin right now, but Narveson may be the answer when it comes to field goals.

P – Dunn will wow out of the gate, both with his leg strength and pinpoint accuracy. He will play a key role in helping flip the field during the typical field-position battles.

PR – Flip a coin. Early in the season, proven hands Payne and Jones will likely get more looks, but it may turn into a carousel until someone separates themselves from the pack.

Even with a lot of question marks, much of the uncertainty is because of an abundance of talent, as opposed to a lack thereof. If the special teams unit can find its identity early in the season, we may once again be blaming Big 12 refs for losses as opposed to a...ahem...field goal wide and to the right.