IOWA CITY, Iowa — In each of the last two seasons, Iowa has employed 10 newcomers in various roles, including many on special teams.
That’s 20 freshmen without the benefit of a redshirt seeing Big Ten action in Big Ten games. Some were used sparingly, such as linebacker Amani Jones on special teams in 2016. Others played more prominent roles, such as tackle Tristan Wirfs, who started eight games last season.
For many, special teams units become a pit stop from high school football to the starting lineup. In the past, players such as Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens came to Iowa in 2010 weighing 195 pounds. After a year on special teams, both moved into primary defensive roles. By 2013, they were 235-pound linebackers. Both start for NFL teams now.
That’s where this year’s crop of freshmen can fit in with the Hawkeyes. That was the case with safety Geno Stone, who arrived in Iowa City shortly after his high school graduation in New Castle, Pa., last June. He worked early on kick coverage and became a major contributor throughout the season. He’s also the primary backup at free safety.
“I didn’t know Geno Stone until all the sudden he’s here in the summer and he’s working on returning balls,” Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods said. “The next thing you know, he’s out there running down on kickoffs and he ended up leading our team in kickoff tackles last year.”
At least nine incoming Hawkeyes are either defensive backs or linebackers. With three starting linebackers, a starting strong safety and special teams captain Kevin Ward graduating, that means former reserves who previously were earmarked for special teams will move to the first team. That also means multiple newcomers will see action this fall on special teams.
Last year, all three new defensive backs — Stone, Matt Hankins, Noah Clayberg — saw action on special teams. Four other freshmen did as well: receivers Max Cooper and Ihmir Smith-Marsette and running back Ivory Kelly-Martin returning punts or kicks, and punter Ryan Gersonde. Five other players did the same thing in 2016.
Iowa’s top candidates to see special teams action in their first fall at Iowa include defensive backs Dallas Craddieth, Julius Brents, D.J. Johnson, Kaevon Merriweather and Terry Roberts, as well as linebackers Dillon Doyle and Jayden McDonald. But none of those decisions have been made.
“That will be what we do in June, end of May or early June,” Woods said. “We’ll go through and evaluate everyone’s tape trying to slot them where we see them in each phase, what position in each phase then we’ll work them like crazy to find out where they’re at.
“Right now, I can’t give you an idea, but [we have] a lot of linebacker bodies, a lot of safety bodies. Those typically tend to be more pronounced as special teams players. We’ll evaluate that as it comes through, but I predict there’s going to be guys out there like last year.”
As with Hitchens and Kirksey, Iowa has used special teams as a proving ground for newcomers. It gets the players used to Big Ten action so the physical nature is not brand new when they are promoted to starting positions. Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz described that philosophy 10 years ago when he didn’t redshirt linebacker A.J. Edds so he’d be ready to start as a sophomore. Edds played plenty of special teams and he became a terrific linebacker for the Hawkeyes.
“The A.J. Edds analogy, that bit of playing they did as freshmen really propelled them forward faster than if we had redshirted them,” Ferentz said back in 2008. “That’s helped me rethink things a bit, too. A.J.’s example has factored in there a bit with some guys.”
That strategy hasn’t changed. Jake Gervase and Brandon Snyder, each of whom has started at free safety since 2016, are leaving after this season. Somebody needs to get ready for 2019, whether it’s Stone, Craddieth, Brents or another player. Special teams helps them prepare for that role.