By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – A message to all the young kids out there who aspire to play football, but can't decide on a position.
Start practicing as a punter because it could pay huge dividends down the road.
Just ask Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz, who is expected to have at least three punters competing for the starting job next season, including two on scholarship.
It isn’t an ideal situation with teams limited to just 85 scholarships.
But every team needs a punter, especially a team like Iowa that has a history of playing in close games under Ferentz that often are decided by field position.
“It would be great to have no punters on scholarship,” Ferentz said Wednesday. “Not to pick on punters.”
Senior-to-be Colten Rastetter has handled most of the punting duties over the past two seasons, but has been mediocre at best, averaging fewer than 40 yards per attempt in both seasons.
Junior-to-be Ryan Gersonde came to Iowa on scholarship in 2017, but hasn’t been able to supplant Rastetter.
So Ferentz knew he had to do something because another season of subpar punting could prove costly, and he apparently wasn’t willing to take that chance.
So enter Michael Sleep-Dalton, a graduate transfer from Arizona State where he started the past two seasons. The Australia native averaged 39.9 yards per punt as a redshirt sophomore with nine punts of 50 yards or more, and he averaged 43.8 yards per punt last season with 10 punts of 50-plus yards.
“We had an opportunity to see him play at the same level of play that we play,” Ferentz said. “He plays in a competitive conference on a competitive team. Got to watch him in real action.
“So we're impressed with that, what we saw in terms of his production, very impressed with him as a young man. Getting a chance to visit with him a little bit. And so I think we're all really excited about what we think he can add to our football team.”
A cynic would say that if you have three punters on your team, you don’t have a reliable punter.
But at least in Sleep-Dalton’s case, he has been reliable before on a stage equal to that of Iowa.
The Hawkeyes would benefit immensely this coming season if Sleep-Dalton picked up where he left off last season at Arizona State. To average nearly 44 yards per punt, and to also have consistent hang time, would be a significant step up from Iowa’s performance at punter over the past two seasons.
Hawkeye fans saw in 2016 with the addition of transfer Ron Coluzzi just how valuable a reliable punter can be.
“Ron came in, did a great job and that will be Michael's job to come in here, first of all, adapt to everything here and go out and do it in a way that everybody can respect,” Ferentz said.
One of the challenges with recruiting punters and kickers is deciding who deserves to be on scholarship and who doesn't. Some of Iowa's best punters and kickers have been walk-ons who started over somebody on scholarship.
There used to be a time when punters rarely came to Iowa on scholarship, or to any college on scholarship for that matter. There were exceptions like the legendary Reggie Roby, who helped rebuild the Iowa program under Hayden Fry.
But Roby was a physical freak whose punts just sounded different when they left his foot and were launched into orbit.
“You think about Reggie Roby, probably would have been All-Big Ten in about four sports and in football maybe All-Big Ten in about four positions,” Ferentz said. “But I think he made the right decision focusing on punting.”
Ferentz has three sons who all played for him at Iowa as offensive linemen, but he probably would have been just fine if they had been punters because there is a demand for the position.
“It's just something I think you have to consider, and I've told this to people with young boys; get these guys punting the ball, because it's really kind of a lost art,” Ferentz said. “Nobody really doesn't seem to want to grow up being a punter now, other than maybe Australians, I guess. And they're smarter than we are.”
Iowa also has to replace its starting kicker from last season with Miguel Recinos having used up his eligibilty, but Ferentz doesn't seem as concerned about that position as punter.
"I'm not saying kickers, good kickers are easy to find, but I think with the popularity of soccer, it's probably a little bit of more of a natural transition," Ferentz said. "Whereas punters are really — they're becoming more and — I think more and more hard to find or challenging to find. And it's just not something that people really gravitate towards for whatever reason."
Long-snapper is another position that Ferentz described as a lost art. Iowa has been fortunate to have some quality long snappers during Ferentz's 20 seasons as head coach, including Casey Krieter, who made the Pro Bowl this past season with the Denver Broncos.
"Casey Kreiter might play until he's 50, realistically," Ferentz said. "He takes care of himself and he's really good at it. And they're not allowed to hit those guys. It's a really good position. But it's kind of a lost art."
Another advantage to being a punter, kicker or long snapper is that they mostly avoid the physical violence that is common in football. They do one thing, and if they do it well enough, it could change the course of their lives.