By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa - One position doesn’t make or break a football team, but there are certain positions that influence the outcome of games more than others, with the most obvious being quarterback.
But don’t forget about punter, especially when referring to the Iowa football team.
Some teams are better than others at withstanding an inconsistent punter because they have enough explosive playmakers on offense to overcome poor field position.
But rarely has that been the case with the Iowa football team under Kirk Ferentz.
His offense relies more on moving the chains at a steady and methodical pace, using both the run and pass to gain chunks of yards. It also relies on good field position to create the desired tempo because good field position allows for play action.
If the punter struggles to do his job, the offense often gets pinned deep in its own territory and becomes more conservative and is forced to play uphill as a result
The defense also faces a much tougher challenge when the punter struggles due to poor field position..
That happened too many times to Iowa last season, but especially during the 24-15 loss to Purdue when Iowa punted seven times for a 29.9 average at Kinnick Stadium. Neither the offense nor the defense could overcome the poor field position.
That level of performance is just unacceptable and has to change because most of Iowa’s games next season will almost certainly be close and competitive, and that makes field position even more important.
With all due respect to junior Colten Rastetter, he just has to get better.
He flashed at times last season, but only averaged 37.8 yards on 55 punts. He also struggled with hang time and with ball placement.
Ryan Gersonde only punted 13 times as a true freshman last season, but he averaged a respectable 42.5 yards with a long of 61 yards.
Gersonde also sits atop the spring depth chart, so maybe the job is his to lose at this stage.
“Both of them I felt like were inconsistent throughout the year, some good, some bad,” said Iowa special teams coach LeVar Woods. “I think they’ve been working very diligently. They’ve been making progress in both of their areas. They both bring a different skill set, but I think they’ve been working well.”
Rastetter used a rugby style to punt last season, while Gersonde used a more traditional two-step approach.
It seemed at times that Rastetter relied too much on the ball to roll or bounce for positive yards because it’s so hard to predict the path of a football.
The good news is that both punters now have a year under their belt.
Iowa is known as a developmental program where players need time to grow and mature. So why should punter be any different?
Iowa has had some solid punters in nearly two decades under Ferentz, a list that includes Jason Baker, David Bradley, Ryan Donahue, Dillon Kidd and Ron Coluzzi.
But they all developed at a different pace, with some taking longer than others.
Coluzzi was an exception as a graduate transfer in that he was a force throughout his only season on the team in 2016.
It probably is asking too much for either Gersonde or Rastetter to be a force at this stage, but they have to avoid being weaknesses.
The fact that Iowa has to break in a new long snapper now that Tyler Kluver has moved on after handling that role in each of the past four seasons also presents a challenge that could effect the situation at punter.
Woods was asked on Friday while addressing the media if the coaches ever considered blowing up the punting game. He seemed confused at first with the wording of the question, but the reporter basically was asking if the frustration level ever reached the point where major changes were considered, especially after Rastetter called a fake punt on his own against Ohio State.
“Our mantra, our thought is always to develop people, and that’s first and foremost,” Woods said. “The guy, if you went back and watched all his punts, with the exception to one other punt, the guy punted pretty well in that game on a big stage and in front of a lot of people.
“To blow a guy up or blow up a position doesn’t make any sense to me. That’s not our philosophy here.”
Rastetter raised his level of performance against Ohio State as he punted three times for a respectable 41.6 average during Iowa’s 55-24 victory at Kinnick Stadium.
Woods seemed to resent the tone of the question, but it came in the wake of season in which Iowa averaged fewer than 40 yards on punts in seven games.
It’s hard for a punter to blend in or to hide his performance. Whether Iowa has fixed its punting woes will become abundantly clear next season.
We might see hints of it during the open practice to conclude spring practice on April 20th at Kinnick Stadium.
But we won’t know for sure until Gersonde or Rastetter both punt in prime time.
You could argue that Gersonde showed more upside than Rastetter last season, but Gersonde also didn’t punt enough to know if he could sustain it.
“I think Ryan has good upside,” Woods said. “I think Ryan’s inconsistent. But he’s also young. He’s been working through what style of punter he really wants to be because he’s got a couple different styles. He just need to settle in on one and be effective at it.
“Colten showed last year that he can be a pretty decent rugby punter. And he can also when he’s consistent be a traditional punter. And then Ryan is a very good traditional punter, but then also has the capability of being an excellent plus-fifty punter.”
Iowa won eight games last season despite having an inconsistent punter and could probably do the same this season.
But a team with a shaky punter always is flirting with disaster, and Woods knows it.
“It’s very critical that we improve in that area,” he said.