Football

NOTEBOOK: Matt Campbell on ISU’s special teams issues, Breece Hall’s big game and more

Sep 25, 2021; Waco, Texas, USA; Baylor Bears running back Trestan Ebner (1) and defensive lineman TJ Franklin(90) celebrate in the second half of the game against the Iowa State Cyclones at McLane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports 

AMES — How to fix Iowa State’s problems in the punting game?

 “You have to look at everybody,” Cyclones head coach Matt Campbell said at Tuesday’s news conference.

 But …

 “It does start with the punt,” Campbell added.

 Thus it starts with senior punter Corey Dunn, whose line-drive, low hang time boot late in Saturday’s 31-29 loss at Baylor yielded a big return that the Bears turned into what proved to be a game-winning field goal.

 Dunn, an Australian transplant who came to ISU in 2018 via the JUCO ranks, started that season and generally punted well. He netted a respectable 38.9 yards per punt, but a torn Achilles tendon in the following fall camp led to a long rehab as Joe Rivera took over at the position. Dunn regained his starting spot this season and has netted 32.8 yards per punt, while booming some and shanking others.

 Consistency is obviously the key, and Dunn — an inspiration in terms of perseverance and resilience —  continues his search for it. 

 “I think what is going on there from a mental standpoint, man, my heart goes out to him, because you’re taking about a kid that’s fought (so hard) to get back,” Campbell said. “And the injury that he had is not like — man, it’s a torn Achilles. And you’re talking about a guy that uses his legs to produce success. So I think from my end of it, that’s why there is a loyalty to him, because I saw what he had to go through to put himself back on the football field. I’d rather ride with a guy that’s going to strain like that to get back than say, we’re just gonna go our separate ways. So I think Corey will only continue to work through it.”
 It’s all he can do, but as that occurs it would be prudent for the Cyclones to weigh all of their possible options.

 Kicker Andrew Mevis also punted in his final season at Fordham and averaged 40.4 yards per boot, so he could be an option if Dunn can’t smooth things out.

 Campbell fervently hopes the latter can occur for obvious reasons — both practical and sentimental.

“Obviously we’ve got to continue to find the best solution for our team, but I think it’s been a long road and the pride I still take in his ability to overcome, you know, his story is still fantastic,” Campbell said of Dunn.

 As for Mevis’s primary role, he’s mostly excelled. Mevis boasts 10 touchbacks this season — watching ISU’s total last season in just four games. Only two of his six kickoffs at Baylor didn’t end in touchbacks, but one of them proved critical to the outcome of the game.

 After drilling a 39-yard field goal to pull the Cyclones within five, at 21-16, with 7:13 left in the third quarter, Mevis’s ensuing kickoff turned into a 98-yard touchdown for the Bears’ Trestan Ebner.

 Campbell said that miscue occurred because of multiple factors.

 “I think he didn’t connect all the way,” Campbell said when asked if Mevis’s kickoff fell just short of the end zone by design or not. “And they are bringing them out of the endzone, too. The (other) one, he was one-yard deep in the end zone. He’s a good returner and we knew he’d take opportunities if he had them. But on the one he took back, we had multiple opportunities to make the play. That was more on the coverage unit than it was the kicker.”

 So you always “have to look at everybody” — and everything — when it comes to fixing special teams shortcomings.

 As for punting …

“That’s something that’s been inefficient so far this season,” Campbell said. “Those are things we have to continue to hammer away at.”

 BREECE BACK IN “BEAST MODE”

 Breece Hall looked a lot like his old, elite self in Saturday’s loss, dashing, darting and driving for a season-best 190 yards rushing and two touchdowns in 27 carries.

 He averaged 7.0 yards per tote and also caught ISU’s final touchdown pass. So Hall is back — mostly — after a physical setback late in fall camp helped lead to a slower-than-expected start for the All-American.

 “When he’s at his best — boy, it’s hard to find a better player in terms of the running back position, in terms of what Breece Hall brings to the team,” Campbell said.

 Hall’s improved health and performance hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, either.

“I would also say the guys around him are playing really well, too,” Campbell said. “I thought that was as good of an offensive performance from our offensive line versus what I felt like going into the game, and still feel like, is one of the best defenses we’ll face. A veteran defense and really physical, and I thought we were at least able to match their physicality within the football game. And, again, I think anytime you run the ball with success, it’s not just one person, but it sure helps to have a guy like Breece Hall doing that for us.”

 O’RIEN VANCE HEALING UP

 Dinged-up linebacker O’Rien Vance saw his first action since the season opener on Saturday. He played 18 snaps while Gerry Vaughn, his backup, played 35. Campbell said that ratio should move toward 50/50 and beyond as Vance continues to heal.

 “I think you’ll see probably a little bit more of a split in terms of what happens as O’Rien gets back,” Campbell said. “Is he back 100%?  I think hopefully this week, another step closer to 100%. He wasn’t there all the way last week, (which) is why we kind of tried to limit his reps to what he could do for us. But I think we continue to find ways to use Gerry Vaughn in a positive way. Can he continue to help us at MIKE? Yes. Can he maybe spell some of those other linebackers at times throughout the football game? Yes. And then obviously, continuing to use him — one area that probably has hurt us is Gerry Vaughn, you know, having to take so much reps on defense, is we’ve had to cut down on his special teams reps. I think that was probably a big loss for us in on a couple of units on Saturday where a guy like Gerry, in terms of our football team, and the veteranness that he brings to those units, not having a guy like that, that can be a big loss for us.”