Returning to being special 

Iowa+defensive+back+Desmond+King+runs+with+the+ball+in+Kinnick+Stadium+on+Saturday%2C+Sept.+5%2C+2015.+The+Hawkeyes+defeated+the+Redbirds%2C+31-14.

Iowa defensive back Desmond King runs with the ball in Kinnick Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 5, 2015. The Hawkeyes defeated the Redbirds, 31-14.

Jordan Hansen, [email protected]

Through two games, it’s been easy to see Iowa’s improvement on special teams from a season ago.

Head coach Kirk Ferentz renewed his focus on special teams to make it a top off-season priority.

“We were not pleased with the way we ended last year and the consistency that we played with,” he said. “The consistency that you have to have wasn’t there, and that’s the difference between winning and losing a lot of times.”

In 13 games last season, Iowa managed just 123 yards of punt return, with 29 of those coming from Drew Ott and Ben Niemann on punt blocks.

This season has been better, at least marginally. Desmond King has looked fairly confident in the role of returner and has 60 punt-return yards.

Think about this for a second. In two games, King has almost half as much punt-return yardage as what Iowa had through all of last season.

King’s kickoff-return skills need a bit of work — he has just 48 yards on three returns — but the intangibles are there, as is the speed.

“All he needs is the smallest crease, and Des is gonna be out,” Hawkeye Greg Mabin said. “He’s just a natural with the ball.”

Punt and kickoff returns, however, are just part of the story. Punter Dillon Kidd has raised the yardage on his average punt from 38.5 last year to 47.3 this season, a mark that ranks No. 18 in the nation.

Placekicker Marshall Koehn has also done his fair share of work. He’s nailed all of his extra points and both of his field-goal attempts while registering touchbacks on seven of his 11 kickoffs this season.

Ferentz has made it clear throughout his tenure that winning the field-position game is crucial to winning the actual game, and he has long put special emphasis on finding good punters.

He’s been successful, for the most part, and as a result, Iowa has long been known for it solid special-teams units — especially kickers and punters, with the exception of last season.

It got to the point where it became a running joke that all the Hawkeye punt returners were out there for was to call a fair catch. This year has been light years in the other direction.

D-back and punt-return team member Mabin put the two seasons into perspective.

“Guys are taking a sense of pride in it,” he said. “Last year, I feel like guys were just out there, not just because they had to, but they weren’t trying as hard as we are this year.”

Whether effort or coaching, the effects have been palpable.

The blocking on those returns has been solid, and Iowa has built a nice corps of special-teams players. In addition to returning, the team has been strong in its coverage units as well.

Perhaps the epitome of this improved coverage was most noticeable during Iowa’s first punt to Iowa State. Riley McCarron jetted down the field and was able to take down dangerous punt returner Allen Lazard — who had four returns for 100 yards in the Cyclones’ season-opener — without his gaining a yard.

“I think he was more proud of that than he was the [25-yard touchdown later in the game],” Ferentz said. “As a coach, that makes you feel good.”

In fact, Iowa has not allowed a single punt-return yard and only 88 yards on four kick returns. Those are excellent numbers, and while they may not be entirely sustainable, it bodes well for the remainder of the season.

There’s a sense this special-teams group can still get better — Iowa hasn’t had a punt or kick return touchdown in two full years — but the base for a great unit already exists.

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