Special teams set to be strength for Hawkeyes in 2020 season

Keith Duncan and Ihmir Smith-Marsette will play key roles on special teams again for Iowa in 2020.


Katina Zentz

Iowa kicker Keith Duncan kicks the ball during the football game against Nebraska at Memorial Stadium on Friday, November 29, 2019. The Hawkeyes defeated the Cornhuskers 27-24. Duncan's kick put the Hawkeyes up 27-24 in the last few seconds of the game.

Isaac Goffin, Sports Reporter

There is always a lot of talk regarding a football team’s offense and defense. But that’s not everything there is to football.

Special teams are an important part of the discussion.

The Iowa football program understands this well, especially in the past three seasons under special teams coordinator Levar Woods. Iowa has one of the most respectable special team units in the nation heading into the 2020 season. Here’s a breakdown of each unit.


The country fell in love with senior Keith Duncan after he hit the game-winning field goal against No. 3 Michigan in 2016.

After not playing in two seasons, Duncan came back in 2019 and took the Big Ten by storm. He hit a Big Ten record 29 field goals, which included the game-winner in the regular season finale at Nebraska.

Though Duncan was named a first-team All-American by many publications, he didn’t win the Lou Groza Award, which is given to the nation’s top collegiate kicker. Duncan is back for the 2020 season, so expect him to continue with his excellent kicking and a vengeance to receive the Lou Groza Award this time around.

Long snapper and holder

There isn’t much to say here, and that’s a good thing for the Hawkeyes.

Long snapping will look different for the Hawkeyes this season, since last season’s starter, Jackson Subbert, graduated. Senior Austin Spiewak will likely be the starter this season.

There will also be change at holder after the graduation of Colten Rastetter. That position will likely be filled by sophomore punter Nick Phelps.

RELATED: Iowa kicker Keith Duncan named to BTN All-Decade Team


Michael Sleep-Dalton was one of the best punters in the Big Ten last season, averaging over 40 yards per punt.

Like some players listed before, he graduated. Fortunately for the Hawkeyes, they do have someone with experience punting for the team on staff – junior Ryan Gersonde.

Gersonde hasn’t punted since 2017, as he redshirted in 2018 and was injured in 2019. When he did play, he was solid, averaging over 40 yards on 13 punts. Even with the long layoff, the experience Gersonde has gained being on the bench and in practice should help him be successful this season. Phelps will likely be his backup.

Kick and punt returns/coverage

Kickoff returning was a strong suit for the Hawkeyes last season thanks to Ihmir Smith-Marsette, who helped lead the Hawkeyes to the sixth-best mark nationally in average kickoff return yards (26.5). Smith-Marsette also had two kickoff returns for TDs last season, which was second best in the nation.

Smith-Marsette is back for his senior season in 2020, which means opposing teams will have to look out for Iowa’s kickoff return unit to take it all the way again this season.

On the other side of the kickoff, the Hawkeyes were also great. Allowing an average of 17.2 yards per turn, the Hawkeyes were eighth-best in the nation in that category.

Punt returning wasn’t as smooth for the Hawkeyes. They had three players return in Nico Ragaini, Max Cooper, and Geno Stone, who averaged a combined 8.1 yards per return. While punting, the Hawkeyes gave up 6.6 yards per return.

Ragaini averaged a team-leading 10.7 yards per return, so he’ll probably be the starter with Cooper being his backup in what should be another successful season for the special teams.

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