May 24, 2024

LeVar Woods using spring ball to fill holes on Iowa’s special teams

Iowa Hawkeyes Football

Iowa Special Teams Coordinator LeVar Woods watches a play unfold during the fourth quarter against Tennessee Monday January 1, 2024 at Camping World Stadium. (Lynn Harrington/stayaliveinpower5)

IOWA CITY, Ia. — It’s no mystery that the Hawkeyes take special teams to another level when it comes to kicking, punting and returns.

Levar Woods is approaching his seventh season of orchestrating the unit, but this spring he doesn’t have a couple of weapons that helped guide Iowa to a 10-4 campaign. Last year’s Ray Guy Award winner Tory Taylor, along with All-American Cooper DeJean are off to the NFL, which left a huge void for Woods because they’re basically irreplaceable.

Taylor’s punting is what gave Iowa great field position for the past three seasons, considering he was a natural at pinning the opposition deep in their own territory. It was a recipe for success, and allowed the Hawkeyes to dictate the pace of the game on defense.

There’s no denying DeJean was an elite return specialist. As a matter of fact his 70-yard punt return touchdown is what gave Iowa the win on the road at Michigan State in 2023. Not to mention DeJean’s punt return touchdown against Minnesota would’ve sealed the victory for Iowa, but the officials claimed it was an illegal play.

Woods knows their value was huge to the Hawkeyes’ special teams, and now he’s trying to keep the wheels rolling for his alma mater. However, Woods is encouraged with the direction of everything after Iowa completed its’ 14th practice of the spring Wednesday.

“We have six players within the room replacing three players, and only two guys that have any playing experience at the college level, so that’s interesting, as you can imagine as a coach,” Woods said. “But I feel like we have a really good strong culture of special teams here at this university within the program but then also within — strong culture within our specialist room right now.”

Rhys Dakin and Ty Nissen are battling it out to replace Taylor. There’s also competition at long snapper. Woods values experience and leadership, so that’s what he’s expecting the replacements to provide.

“I think Ty Nissen and Rhys Dakin, both of those guys have capabilities to do the shots that Tory did,” he said. “Now, the difference is going to be Tory has done it a lot longer, he was a little bit more skilled, a little bit more adept at it at this current moment.”

The good news for Hawkeye fans is the fact that Woods still has kicker Drew Stevens in his arsenal, who earned third-team, All-Big Ten honors last season. Stevens was money early on in Big Ten play too. He made two clutch fourth quarter field goals in the road victory at Michigan State. Stevens also nailed a 52-yard walk-off field goal against Northwestern.

Several fans thought Stevens struggled down the stretch though. He even had two kicks blocked in the regular season finale at Nebraska, in which backup Marshall Meeder filled in and nailed the game-winner. Woods is focusing on keeping Stevens’ confidence intact, and making sure he learns from those situations.

“I think with Drew, what we’re seeing right now is a much more mature version of Drew, as it stands today, a much more humbled version of Drew,” the 46-year old said. “He got humbled very hard last year, you guys all saw it and you all watched it, but I think he’s a different kid right now.”

As far as returns, Woods has a couple players in the mix to replace the production of DeJean. The Cleveland native wants to use running back Kaleb Johnson more on returning kickoffs, and wideout Kaden Wetjen on returning punts. Wetjen has looked promising in Wood’s eyes, and received the most reps at punt returns this spring.

Terrell Washington, Kamari Moulton, Zach Lutmer and Alec Wick will also be in the mix as well. Although Iowa’s final scrimmage of the spring is Saturday, Woods feel like special teams are ahead of schedule, and he wants to showcase how hard his group has worked over the past five weeks.

“Anytime there’s change that we have going on, there’s an opportunity for growth, so we’re looking for that right now, and that’s what we’ve been focused on here the first 14 practices of spring, and hopefully have a good one here on Saturday.”