Well folks, we have reached the end of the Wide Right & Natty Lite position group profiles. The Iowa State special teams group is largely the same as it was last season but will be leaned on to perform better than it did during the 2018-19 season.
After being led by Joe Houston for the past few seasons, Matt Campbell announced that Houston would be moving off-the-field in taking a quality control position, before Houston eventually left for Alabama. Moving forward, it appears that the entire staff, including Campbell himself, coaches this position group. Apart from Chris Francis, virtually everyone is back from last year’s kicking department.
Chris Francis is the only departure from this unit due to graduation. Francis handled the kickoff duties over the past few seasons, who did an admirable job despite not having a cannon for a leg. The most impactful departure for the upcoming season is an injury.
Punter (at a young 49 years old) Corey Dunn was lost for the season earlier this year thanks to an achilles tendon injury. Dunn, who was wildly insistent at times, did show the ability to both flip the field and pin opponents deep, and the loss of his services cannot be ignored.
While he is not new, Joe Rivera will likely be Iowa State’s punter when the Cyclones take on the Pantherhawks next Saturday. Rivera, a Grinnell, IA native, appeared in all 13 games last season as the holder on field goals and PATs. He also punted in the Drake game, where he performed nicely despite horrible conditions and even launched a 46-yard boot.
Another new name to know is San Jose State transfer Brian Papazian, who was brought in to add depth to the punter position and may see time if Rivera struggles. Papazian punted 15 times for San Jose State, with an average of 38 yards and a long of 47 yards.
LEADER OF THE PACK
A coaching staff favorite, Steve Wirtel has been a very consistent and important part of Iowa State’s recent success. While that may seem like a mountain of praise that a special teams player, the long snapper is the most important player on a unit that can destroy a football team if it does not function correctly.
Wirtel has handled all the long-snapping duties with remarkable consistency for the Cyclones, including field goals, punts, and PATs. In fact, Wirtel is one of the better NFL prospects on the roster, as he has become one of the top long-snappers in the country. Wirtel also has a bit of an NFL pedigree, as his brother currently snaps for the Chicago Bears.
“Woahhhhhhhhh ohhhhhh oh. Come on. Oh yea. Return of the Butt. Return of the Butt. Return of the Butt. You know that he is back”.
Our old friend, who we affectionately refer to as Butt Boulevard, is back and will once again handle field goal and PAT duties in 2019. Assalley, a rsJR from Naperville, IA, returns after bursting onto the scene last season. Connor had a remarkable year, which saw him hit 16-23 field goals and 36-38 PATs, both good for 6th place in the single-season record books. His real strength was from 20-45 yards, where he hit 14-17.
Going into 2019, Assalley needs to improve on his ability to hit from outside 45 yards, as he went 2-6 from that range last season. To address this, he spent the off-season working on his lower body strength and flexibility and was quoted as saying he would be comfortable with any kick short of 53 yards.
While Connor Assalley has performed admirably, he may end up being a bridge to Narveson. Brayden, who redshirted his freshman season, was a highly touted kicking prospect that the coaching staff is undoubtedly expecting big things from in the future.
While it could be viewed as concerning that he did not win the job in 2018, there are certainly plenty of challenges in adjusting to the collegiate game, especially when it comes to a high-pressure position like placekicker. Expect to see Narveson if Assalley suffers an injury or ineffectiveness in 2019.
Kene did an outstanding job for the Cyclones in 2018, and even more will be expected of him in 2019. When it came to kick return, he led the Big 12 and ranked 12th nationally in kickoff returns, averaging 26.8 yards on 24 returns, which was good for the second-best season average in school history. He posted three returns of 40 or more yards: a 47-yard return vs. Akron, 45-yarder vs. TCU and a season-long 58-yard return vs. Texas Tech.
While Kene stole the spotlight as a kick returner, what Tarique Milton brings to the table is nearly as important and impressive. He was recognized as a Third-Team All-Big punt returner by Phil Steele in 2018, where he ranked third in the Big 12 in punt return average (12.7), good for the 10th best season in school history.
While there were individual successes in 2018, this entire group needs to take a step forward in 2019 to ensure the Cyclones reach their potential. At times in 2018, the special teams cost the Cyclones dearly in terms of the field position battle (namely against Iowa and TCU). While Connor Assalley had a nice season, an improvement from distance would be a huge benefit to the Cyclone offense.
After a coaching switch and seemingly increased emphasis placed on special teams by Matt Campbell, expecting improvement in those areas seems logical and likely. The return game should also continue to be dynamic and dangerous. In fact, don’t be surprised if both Tarique Milton and Kene Nwangwu both break out for a touchdown return in 2019.
The biggest question mark facing this position group is Joe Rivera replacing the injured Corey Dunn. However, if at a minimum Rivera can be more consistent than Dunn, the Cyclones should be just fine in the punting department.
This unit has experience, depth, and the potential to be a good-excellent unit in 2019, a development that would be a critical asset to this team’s goal of being a contender in the Big 12 and national landscape.