Iowa Football: Chris White, Special Teams Are Key to Hawks' and Ferentz's Future
Recently, Iowa Hawkeyes' special teams coaches Darrell Wilson and Lester Erb left the program (per Rick Brown of HawkCentral.com) and head coach Kirk Ferentz hired Chris White to coach running backs and to coordinate special teams.
According to Hawkeyesports.com, White comes to Iowa via the Minnesota Vikings, where he spent the past four years working with the Minnesota special teams.
Despite all the recent hirings and departures—six changes over the last two years including both coordinators—White and a reinvigorated special teams will be the difference makers in the Hawkeyes' fortunes—fortunes that have gone decidedly southward over the last three years.
Iowa's record over those last three years has been an unimpressive 19-19, which is tied for 67th in the country over that span. That record is also only minimally better than that of intra-state rival Iowa State—at 17-21—though the Hawks have historically dominated the Cyclones.
This despite Iowa putting 12 men into the NFL Draft between 2011-2012. Compare this with ISU, which put one player into the draft during that time, or Big Ten-competitor Northwestern, which has gone 23-16 and put two players into the draft.
In short, Iowa has had as much talent as almost any program in the Big Ten and the country, yet has underperformed on the field. The biggest issue has been special teams.
In fact, at least one loss over each of the past three seasons can be closely tied to special teams play.
In 2012, 106 yards in penalties and a defense that took the first half off played a part in a loss to Central Michigan. However, possibly the most passive onside kick recovery attempt in Iowa's history sealed the Hawkeyes' fate.
All of the other mistakes would have been erased if anybody in black and gold had attempted to recover that kick. The end result was that Iowa lost 32-31 on a last second field goal that was set up by CMU's onside-kick recovery.
In 2011, Iowa had a similarly miserable special teams showing against Minnesota.
The Hawks missed field goals of 24 and 43 yards, had one shanked punt and again, a failed onside-kick recovery.
There were other (non-special teams related) contributing factors, but the end result was a 22-21 loss, in which any of the above special-teams disasters could have and probably would have changed the Hawks' fortunes.
2010 featured the worst Iowa special teams ever seen under Kirk Ferentz prompting Cedar Rapids Gazette's Scott Dochterman to write, "Iowa's special teams need special treatment".
The breakdowns began during the third game of the season when the Hawks traveled to meet the Arizona Wildcats. In the contest Iowa allowed one blocked punt, one 100-yard kickoff return and missed an extra point.
The Hawks left Tucson on the losing end of a 34-27 score.
Later in the year—a year that began with Big Ten and even national title hopes—5-1 Iowa faced off against 6-1 Wisconsin in Kinnick Stadium.
As Ryan Suchomel of HawkCentral.com documented, the Hawks missed one extra point, one field goal, took an offsides penalty on a kickoff and allowed a 37-yard kick return that left an elite Wisconsin offense at midfield.
However, the backbreaking play occurred with 6:24 left to go in the fourth quarter and the Hawks holding on to a 30-24 lead.
Facing 4th-and-4 at its own 26-yard-line, Wisconsin brought out the punt squad. Everybody not named Kirk Ferentz or working on the Iowa staff knew there was no way Badgers coach Bret Bielema was punting.
Nonetheless, the people who mattered were caught off guard, Wisconsin punter Brad Nortman faked the punt and ran the ball for 17 uncontested yards. The Hawks went on to lose 31-30.
Iowa was a beaten team by the time it made it to Minnesota for the last regular season game of the year.
The Hawkeyes braintrust opted to concede field position and squib kick all of the kickoffs, thereby admitting it had no faith in its special teams to stop Gophers return man Troy Stoudermire.
However, in the fourth quarter, with Iowa holding on to a 24-20 lead despite almost the entire team failing to show up, the Hawks were once again unprepared for a predictable trick onside kick that they failed to recover.
Iowa wound up losing 27-24.
Five losses that were directly attributable to special teams failures or in which special teams failures played a key role.
Take back those five losses—not to mention the intangible element of momentum that those losses had on Iowa—and the Hawks would be 24-14 over the past three years, or tied for approximately 38th in the country.
That might not be an elite figure, but it's worlds better than 19-19.
Furthermore, compare this with 2002-2004, during which Iowa went 31-7 or eighth in the country.
The Hawks had elite special teams for those three seasons, and those elite special teams directly caused or played a key role in many Hawkeyes wins.
Finally, Tate-to-Holloway is the enduring image of the 2005 Capital One Bowl victory, but two blocked punts and a fake-field goal stoppage were the true differences between a win and a loss.
When Kirk Ferentz has won, he has won the close games, and he has won the close games when he has won the special teams battles.
The cause and effect is evident.
This leads to the hiring of Chris White.
As previously mentioned, White's most recent assignment was as one of the Vikings' special teams coordinators.
According to Rick Gosselin of the Dallas News, Minnesota had the best special teams in the country in 2012, and it wasn't even close.
It's impossible to say exactly how much White had to do with the Vikes' success. He wasn't the head special teams coach, he can't take credit for return man Percy Harvin's natural skills and he wasn't on the field when rookie kicker Blair Walsh hit 35-of-38 field goal attempts.
On the other hand, it is apparent that Ferentz (finally) recognized something was not working with his special teams squads. He also recognized that the special teams needed swift attention, and he recognized that White's resume as a special teams coach is unimpeachable.
Going back to 2010, Iowa has played 12 games in which the margin of victory has been three points or fewer. The Hawks have gone 3-9 in those games, and, as often as not, special teams were the difference.
Between 2002-2004, the Hawks went 5-0 in games decided by a field goal or less. Again, special teams were often the difference.
Time will tell if White is successful and if the Iowa special teams—and by extension, Kirk Ferentz and the Iowa football program—enter a new era of winning.
What is certain is that there is a commitment to improved special teams, and that is a genuine and necessary commitment to improving a downtrodden program.
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