IOWA CITY | It was about a year ago that John Wienke and a few of his Iowa football teammates were messing around at the end of practice one day.
Wienke, a heralded high school quarterback who hasn’t played much in college, found the ball in his hands and instead of throwing it, he kicked it.
“I punted it across the field and over the fence over there,” he recalled. “I just kind of did it. Coach (Lester) Erb said I could expect to go out the next morning with the specialists.”
It was the start of something. Wienke, who might have expected to be embroiled in a quarterback controversy at this point in his career, is instead involved in bit of a punting controversy.
He is one of three players who are on almost equal footing in a battle to win a job that is vastly underrated but of considerable importance in the Hawkeyes’ scheme of things.
It’s an intriguing battle between vastly different players.
There is Wienke, a high school quarterback so gifted he originally committed to Michigan before deciding Iowa was a better place for him. There is Jonny Mullings, an Australian-born rugby player whose on-field football experience consists of one season at Ottumwa High School. And there is Connor Kornbrath, a 6-foot-6 freshman from West Virginia.
“It’s going to be close the whole way through, I think …” said Mullings, a sophomore. “Connor’s come in and is doing well and John is doing well. I think really it’s just going to come down to who is the most consistent, who can go out there time after time and do the job.”
Erb, who coaches the Hawkeyes’ special teams, said he thinks the competition is “going to go all through camp.
“It may go halfway through the season,” he added, “but we’ll end up settling on somebody eventually.”
Iowa coach Kirk Ferentz said he has yet to see the consistency he desires out of any of the three, but he said all three are working hard at it.
“Somebody will fill that void, will find a way to get that done ...” he said. “I’m not going to minimize it. Obviously, it’s a very important position.”
The Hawkeyes have a history of quality punting, going back to the 1980s when Reggie Roby was arguably the best punter in college football history. Iowa grad Jason Baker been employed as a punter in the NFL for 11 years. Ryan Donahue is in his second season with the Detroit Lions. Last year, Eric Guthrie was an apparent stopgap replacement, but Iowa ended up leading the Big Ten in net punting, earning Guthrie a look from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
While Mullings and Kornbrath have plenty of time to show what they can do in college, it’s now or never for Wienke.
“If I can get on the field and contribute in a good way for this team, it would be a pretty positive thing,” he said.
Wienke threw 620 passes during his high school career in Tuscola, Ill., but he has thrown just two at Iowa. He arrived in the same recruiting class with James Vandenberg, who is now the team’s most established star. Wienke attempted one pass against Iowa State in 2010 and one last season in the Insight Bowl loss to Oklahoma. And that one was intercepted.
“If I play a little bit this year, I’d be pretty happy,” he admitted. “If I can contribute one way or the other, either by pushing other people to get better or by being the starting punter, it will all be good for the team.”
He still is dabbling at quarterback. He works with the team’s younger QBs at the start of practice each day, but he’s not likely to find himself under center unless something happens to Vandenberg, freshman Jake Rudock and junior-college transfer Cody Sokol.
“I’m mostly just helping with the young guys, trying to move them along,” he said.
His best chance to get onto the field clearly is as a punter. He’s not a total newcomer to the position. He punted 50 times in his last two years of high school for a solid 39.6 average.
“Is he seasoned yet? No,” Erb said. “But he’s working on it.”
Ferentz just loves the fact that Wienke is willing to set aside dreams of playing a glory position to help the team in a relatively inglorious role.
“He’s got a tremendous attitude,” Ferentz said. “He has from day one when he got in here, and I think he’s welcomed the challenge of it. He’s really started working in earnest on it last spring, and that’s a position that’s clearly up for grabs right now.”