IOWA CITY, Iowa – Like a good referee or umpire, a punter is doing well when he mostly goes unnoticed. Iowa’s Dillon Kidd is achieving that status after a season of his shortcomings being near the forefront.
The Hawkeye senior leads the Big Ten in punting with a 49.8 yard average. His 10 attempts fall short of the minimum number to qualify for the national rankings but his average would put him fourth in the country.
As a point of reference, Kidd ranked 10th in the conference last season with a 38.5 average. By the end of the year, he was splitting time with Connor Kornbrath.
Iowa Coach Kirk Ferentz opened up the punter competition in the off-season. Kicker Marshall Koehn challenged Kidd all throughout August camp before the latter emerged as the starter for the season-opener against Illinois State.
"He’s really done a great job of concentrating," Ferentz said. "He’s done a pretty fair job in practice overall since he got here, but it’s a little like I alluded to with Marshall. Marshall’s biggest challenge was developing consistency, which over the last two years he’s really done, and I would give Dillon the same credit. Last year he wasn’t really consistent. That showed up. And thus far three games into it and he’s doing a super job."
Kidd arrived at Iowa on scholarship in January of 2014 after a year at El Camino Community College in California. That stop followed two years as a Florida State walk-on. He shined at times last fall but couldn’t do it with regularity.
"I think there’s always an adjustment period when you move onto something different and new. Just coming from Florida State where I was at for two years to this was definitely a different culture and a little bit of a culture shock," he said.
Kidd spent the off-season bonding with teammates and leaning on everyone he could to improve his game. That included his father, longtime NFL punter John Kidd.
In August, Jason Baker, who punted at Iowa and in the NFL, visited Hawkeye camp. His message for Kidd was to try not to do too much.
"(Baker said to) find a range and not try to be perfect on every kick. That mindset has really helped me," Kidd said. "I really feel comfortable a lot more this year just being in the program and being around the guys and earning more trust from the coaching staff. It kind of all comes together. And knowing, hey, this is my last shot if I don’t perform well this season. You don’t want t leave anything on the field in any game."
Special Team Coordinator Chris White and the staff also installed the shield punt alignment during the off-season. It called for three players to form a barrier in front of Kidd. That changed things for him.
"We knew that our gunners and our coverage team were going to be in the position of where the ball was supposed to be placed. That was on me that I had to get the ball there. The majority of the work and the training I did in the offseason was all directional kicking to make sure I set our guys up to be in the right position all the time," he said.
To his credit, Kidd has racked up five punts of 50 or more yards this season. Four balls have been fair caught, four have been touchbacks and two pinned the opponent inside the 20.
"I really like the balls that don’t get returned. So, any punt that’s over 40 yards that doesn’t come back the other way I’m happy with," he said.
And that’s clearly the objective Iowa employs. The Hawkeyes rank 121st nationally in punt return defense, a statistic that’s obviously flawed. They allow 25.0 yards per return but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Iowa has punted 11 times this year. But only twice has an opponent returned a punt, making it a lot less likely that there’s a big play or favorable field position.
Ferentz and the staff felt the need to address their approach after Nebraska punt returner De’Mornay Pierson-El torched them 134 yards and a touchdown on three attempts last November. Iowa lost, 37-34, in overtime.
Koehn has stayed in the punt picture as well. The senior took Iowa’s first attempt in Saturday’s 27-24 win against Pittsburgh. He was credited with a 64-yarder that left the Panthers inside their five.
The one blip on the punting radar this year came when Pitt blocked Kidd’s try in the third quarter and returned it for a touchdown to tie the game 17-17. He said the Hawkeyes were prepared for the pressure based on film.
"I kind of had that thought process that I had to have my get-off speed at a certain time. They lined up well and they caught us in a little bit of an awkward position protection wise and I could have gotten the ball off a little faster. Since then, we’ve made some tweaks and adjustments and made some changes really small that will hopefully help us get us out of that position for the future," Kidd said.
Kidd’s not taking his fast start for granted. As he saw last season, the wheels can come off in a hurry.
"As far as being a specialist, you never feel perfect. You always want to strive to be the best you can," he said.
Ferentz notices the change in approach by his senior.
"I know nothing about being a specialist, I can assure you, but I do know this: It’s a different position, a different mentality, different mindset," he said. "So I think the key is finding out what works for you and trying to simplify things. Anything in life, the more you can simplify it so you have clarity, that’s a good thing. I think that’s really the trick to avoid that information overload, find out what’s working for you. I’m not sure what those buzz words are right now or the key things are, but it seems that they’re really resonating very well for him right now, so that’s great to see."