Compared to the esoteric art of hitting a baseball or swinging a golf club, punting a football may seem almost routine. But as any punter can tell you, launching the ball downfield is anything but an everyday act.
Even to their teammates, punters’ contributions may often seem to matter less than throwing a tight spiral to a receiver or the ability to spot holes in an opposing defensive line. But a good punter can put opponents deep into their own territory. Saturday in San Diego, Yale wide receiver and punter Ashley Wright ’07 had two such kicks, both of which demonstrated that punting is more than just booting the ball.
Wright started his collegiate punting career with a 64-yarder that bounced within the five-yard line. He was also successful on his second punt, kicking the ball within the 10-yard line before Larry Abare ’09 caught it and downed it at the 3-yard line.
“I was just trying to get it really high on the first one and get the guy to call for a fair catch, but the guy lost it in the sun and it rolled within the 5,” Wright said. “[Abare] made good plays on both of them.”
Wright said that the most difficult thing and the most important thing about punting is the way one drops the ball. Standing 14 yards behind the long snapper, the punter must catch the spiraling ball and turn it so the laces are on top and do not interfere with the kick. At that point, the punter drops it towards his foot before kicking it. While dropping a football from about waist-height towards the ground does not seem to be challenging, the way it is done affects everything about the punt.
“If you drop it below your waist, it’s going to be a flatter kick, but if you drop it higher, it will more likely come off of that at a higher angle,” Wright explained. “It’s kind of difficult with the drop to get good timing and put it on foot properly. If you don’t, then it won’t come off with a spiral or with enough force or velocity.”
After the drop, the actual kicking must be done. Josh Helmrich ’09, a punter and backup quarterback for the junior varsity team who punted five times Sept. 11 versus Sacred Heart, said he focuses on getting the proper contact with the ball after getting a good drop.
“We wear flat shoes with no laces so that when the ball hits the foot, it’s flat surface on flat surface,” Helmrich said. “Ideally the ball will be slightly inward, slightly downward, and you want to hit it right on the arch of your foot. If the ball hits your foot solid, it will go, very similar to hitting a baseball — if you hit the ball square on it will go.”
The form of the kicking leg and the style of the kick affects the punt as well.
“Some people have the conception that it’s the same as kicking a field goal, but they are totally different motions,” Helmrich said. “The extra-point kick is from the side and a sweeping motion, but if you do that punting, you may get a spiral once in a while but it’s not consistent. Your leg is supposed to be straight and you kick it straight through and up.”
For Wright at this point in his punting career, most of these caveats are so ingrained in him that he does not need to think much about them.
“It’s really basic,” Wright said. “I just kick it every day in practice. It’s kind of like a golf swing — you repeat it and repeat it until you get it.”
There are times when punting deviates from the normal pattern, namely when the snap is off or the opponent’s special teams breaks through the line. That is why long snappers Chris Wright ’07, who is out with an illness, and Chris Barry ’07, who started against the Toreros, know they have to snap and block properly.
Barry said he starts off with his dominant hand gripping the football like a quarterback would when he throws it, except that the laces and his fingers are facing and resting on the ground. With his other hand, he guides the football. To snap it, he said he looks through his legs, uses his hips to generate extra force, and throws it back to the punter. After that, the snapper has to get up and assume his role as a blocker.
Barry said it can be challenging to both snap and block in quick succession, but snapping is the most important.
“[Blocking] is a moot point if you have a bad snap,” Barry said. “Since you have support from guards to the right and the left and then the personal protector in the backfield with the punter, you are not really solo. I would rather have a good snap and a bad block because if it’s over the punter’s head you are in trouble.”
If somehow the snap is off or a foe is closing in, the Bulldogs rely on their punters to be athletic enough and calm enough to kick the ball under pressure.
“In a game it helps to be athletic like Ashley because if something goes awry, being able to make a play is not something you can really practice,” Helmrich said. “The most important thing is getting rid of the ball. If your form is terrible and it only goes 20 yards, 20 yards is still better than negative 10.”
While Wright said he does not like to punt since it means the offense was not able to get its job done, the 5-foot-9 Helmrich said he enjoys punting because it does not require inborn traits like pure speed or strength.
“I would say the biggest improvement for me comes from just working at punting,” he said. “By doing repetitions, I am getting a better form and if you kick the ball enough your leg will get stronger.”