Special teams a secret weapon for Iowa
By ADAM HENSLEY
The Associated Press
IOWA CITY — Charlie Jones and Tory Taylor didn’t take conventional paths to Iowa. Three games into their first season with the Hawkeyes, they’re feeling right at home.
Their performances highlighted a big day for special teams in last week’s 49-7 win over Michigan State, never more than during a one-minute span late in the second quarter.
Taylor got off a 61-yard punt to pin Michigan State at its 10-yard line. The Spartans went three-and-out and punted to Jones, who found open field on his left and sprinted 54 yards for a touchdown and a 28-0 lead.
Jones finished with five punt returns for 105 yards, the second-most by an Iowa player in 20 years, and was selected Big Ten special teams player of the week.
“Great to see him recognized,” Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said. “And Taylor, he did a great job, too. Special teams was certainly a big part of the victory.”
Jones, a junior from Deerfield, Illinois, began his career as a scholarship player at Buffalo. In 2018, he caught 18 passes for 395 yards as a receiver and was the Bulls’ top kick returner with an average of 19.3 yards.
He left after that season and walked on at Iowa, sitting out last year per transfer rules.
“I love my teammates over there at Buffalo,” Jones said. “But I wanted to play against the best of the best. In the Big Ten, they do that every week.”
Jones spent this past summer living with quarterback Spencer Petras. With the coronavirus pandemic limiting their options to get out and do things, they still made productive use of their time.
“There was nothing else to do except for go out and run routes with Spence, so we did that every day,” Jones said. “It definitely helped build chemistry and camaraderie between us.”
Taylor’s summer journey to Iowa City was made more difficult by COVID-19 restrictions. The 23-year-old freshman from Melbourne, Australia, had to quarantine before entering the United States.
“It all happened pretty quickly,” Taylor said. “I was sitting in my room on a Thursday night and my coach back home in Australia rang me. He said, ‘You’re going to be leaving this weekend.’ I had to quarantine up in Sydney for a couple weeks and then got on the plane to get over here.”
Taylor’s previous exposure to American football came from television. Friends convinced him to seriously think about kicking in the United States, and he began training with an outfit that connects Australians with U.S. colleges. Special teams coordinator LeVar Woods traveled to Melbourne to meet with Taylor and his family, and offered a scholarship.
“I’m a pretty laid-back person, but I’m not going to lie – I was a bit nervous when he was coming,” Taylor said. “I had never done anything like that before. I was kind of new to the sport in itself. The moment I met him, he made me feel really comfortable.”
Taylor is second in the Big Ten and 13th nationally with a 46-yard average per punt. And there’s plenty of room for growth considering he’s only been kicking an American football for 18 months.
Jones’ ceiling also is high given he had never returned a punt in college until this year. He said his willingness to take chances sets him apart from other return men.
“I think on some (punts) I could fair-catch it, but I take a little bit of a risk and try to make something out of nothing,” Jones said.
Jones and Taylor both took risks to reach Iowa City.
Jones left a solid Buffalo program to test himself in a Power Five conference. Taylor traveled more than 9,000 miles from home and had never attended a college football game until he played in his first one Oct. 24 against Purdue.
“Every time I walk out the doors to practice, I feel very lucky,” Taylor said. “Especially at Purdue, I kind of took a moment. I was like, ‘Oh wow, this is it. I guess I’ve kind of made it.'”