Iowa State’s kickers ready for competition to translate into touchbacks

Iowa State expects good competition and improved kickoffs this season with the addition of grad transfer Andrew Mevis (left) and the return of veteran kicker Connor Assalley (right). 

Matt Belinson

Iowa State and Kansas — those are the only Big 12 schools with five seasons of under 20 touchbacks in the Big 12 since 2012.

The Cyclones are coming off one of their best seasons in program history and enter 2021 with few uncertainties. Nineteen returning starters and multiple preseason First Team All-Big 12 selections will take care of that. But the kicking game — more specifically, touchbacks, or lack thereof — gave the Cyclones issues during their 9-3 season and was the first question Iowa State Head Coach Matt Campbell took at Media Day on Monday. 

Iowa State brought in grad transfer Andrew Mevis from Fordham to help solve the problem of kickoffs, creating competition for veteran kicker Connor Assalley as fall camp gets underway. Fordham didn’t play last fall after the Patriot League postponed the 2020 season to the spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but Campbell has liked what he’s seen from Mevis so far.

“We’ll see as camp continues to evolve, but there’s a lot of strengths that Andrew has, obviously,” Campbell said Monday. “He’s got a real strong leg, which has been certainly fun to watch and see.”

Touchbacks might not be the first topic of conversation around a preseason top-10 team like the Cyclones, but looking back to the story of the 2020 season shows how crucial field position and kickoffs were to Iowa State’s journey. And Campbell and the entire specialist room knows it has to be fixed if the Cyclones want to take another step forward.

Iowa State’s opponents had 10 touchbacks last season, with three of the Cyclones’ kickoffs not even making the end-zone and going out of bounds for a penalty. The 10 touchbacks were only more than Kansas’ eight and West Virginia’s seven. Meanwhile, the brass of the conference, Texas and Oklahoma, had 67 and 30, respectively. Iowa State is also the only team in the Big 12 over the last two seasons with sub-15 touchbacks.

“We’re trying to hit as many touchbacks as we can, there really isn’t anything other than just that,” Assalley said at Media Day on Monday. “There’s always competition, you don’t just get competition in fall camp. If you don’t practice well, you’re not going to play anyway. Specialists like to compete anyway on our own when we’re in practice by ourselves. It brings out the best in everybody.”

The lack of touchbacks turned into real problems for the Cyclones last season, with opponents having over 100 yards on kickoff returns in six of Iowa State’s 12 games. Remember the season opener versus Louisiana? The Ragin’ Cajuns returned a 95-yard kickoff for a touchdown, only to return a 83-yard punt for a score later in the game, flipping the momentum in their favor to shock the Cyclones in week one.

Kickoff issues popped up in the Big 12 Championship as well. The Sooners returned two kickoffs for a total of 86 total yards (43 per kick), including right before halftime when Tre Brown returned a short kickoff past midfield to give the Sooners another chance to score. The kickoff return paid off after Oklahoma punched in a touchdown just before halftime to increase their lead to 24-7 heading into the locker room.

No team in all of Division I football had to cover more kickoffs than Iowa State last season at 56.

“We covered more kicks than anyone in division one football last year,” Campbell said. “There’s moments in last football season where that hurt our football team, so I really think the consistency of a kickoff guy — you know, we had to battle through a lot of injuries in fall camp and then Eddie Ogamba getting hurt — it was a challenge.”

Since 2012 when the last Big 12 alignment took place, Iowa State has had under 15 touchbacks in four seasons. Since 2012, the average number of touchbacks of current Big 12 teams has been a 32.3 average, with Oklahoma averaging 56.3 touchbacks a season since 2012 and the Longhorns averaging 42 touchbacks.

The addition of Mevis is based on solving this problem for Iowa State, and he’s got the experience to give Campbell confidence. Mevis kicked 50 touchbacks on 63 kickoffs at Fordham in 2019.

Assalley isn’t worried about Mevis coming into the program. He has enjoyed it. And the Cyclones are hoping the competition translates into more touchbacks this season.

“Andrew played at a different university and brings a different perspective, but it’s been great for us,” Assalley said.