Noel’s punt returns back up off-season promises

Iowa State Cyclones’ punt runner Jaylin Noel (13) runs with the ball against Northern Iowa during the first quarter in the season-opening game at Jack Trice Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, in Ames, Iowa. © Nirmalendu Majumdar/Ames Tribune / USA TODAY NETWORK

AMES — Iowa State faced Iowa in the 2019 Cy-Hawk football game at Jack Trice Stadium. ESPN’s College GameDay was in town and the a lot of college football fans around the country watched a pair of Cyclones collide with each other while trying to return a punt.

The play helped seal Iowa State’s losing fate in that game, and set the stage for what would follow from that unit. After that day, seeing a punt return from an Iowa State team became a rarity — until the Cyclones’ 30-9 season-opening win Saturday over Northern Iowa, that is. ISU had worked in the offseason to find ways to draw production out of the punt return unit and it showed Saturday on Jaylin Noel’s perfectly-designed and expertly-executed 39-yarder in the first quarter.

“I think an area we felt like we can really grow is that hidden yardage in the punt return game,” Campbell said. “You know, there were times where I think we left some things out there that we needed to be better and wanted to be better.”

Prioritizing fair catches over punt returns seemingly became the philosophy for the program, at least until it could complete the steps to improve it.

Iowa State didn’t feal confident in its fundamentals. That changed with the arrival of special teams coordinator Jordan Langs, and it was showcased on Saturday.

“I think what you saw was a lot of the emphasis in the offseason of our ability to be lethal,” Campbell said. “I think that’s a hard thing about punt return sometimes is man it’s such a bang-bang play… to be lethal, you’ve got to be really fundamentally sound and you got to do a great job of it, but I thought our kids did.”

On the second punt of the game, Jaylin Noel took the return from the middle of the field, with a plentiful amount of space in front of him.

Seconds later, he was 39 yards downfield.

His punt return stands as the longest by any Iowa State player since 2018.

It wasn’t a fluke play. Iowa State’s return team was demonstrably prepared for UNI. Noel had another return go for 21 yards and a separate kick-off return called back because of a holding penalty.

“There’s a couple things there you’ve got to clean up,” Campbell said. “We have the big return at the end of the game where I think we get across the 50 and it comes back because of a hold and then you have the extra point. (We’ve) got to keep growing forward, but a lot of good things to start things off for the season for us here.”

It will come full circle in a week, when the Cyclones will face off with Iowa hoping to repeat last year’s result.

And Iowa State still needs to prove that the punt return unit, along with revamped groups around the field, can compete with and execute against Big 12 programs.

“I think you saw great fundamentals and technique (on Saturday) and that’s what you hope for coming out of fall camp,” Campbell said. “(We’ll look at) the first live evaluation (and ask) can you can you equally see great fundamentals and technique? I thought you saw it in that play for sure.”

Iowa State fans, of course, will want to see it again next week.

And each of them know how impactful a play like that can be in the rivalry.