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What You Don't Know About: Being a Punter

Jan 24 2017
Photo by
Ben Liebenberg/AP Images
Photo by
Ben Liebenberg/AP Images
Johnny Hekker
Los Angeles Rams
Jan 24 2017

“What do you do for work?”

I was in the backyard of my house outside of Seattle when my neighbor poked his head over the wooden fence that separates our yards and asked me about my job. It was like something out of Home Improvement — one of those Wilson-type situations.

“I’m a punter for the Rams.”

“Oh, so you’re the kicker?”

“Uhhh, well … not exactly.”

I get this a lot. People find out what I do for a living — either they ask and I tell them or they see me on TV and recognize me — and they confuse me with the kicker. They’ll say something like, “That’s gotta be a tough job, because you’re either making them or missing them.” Or, if they’re a Rams fan, they’ll say, “Thanks, man. You got us some points last week!”

Sometimes I correct people. It depends on where I am and what the situation is.

Most of the time, I just let it slide.

I knew my neighbor wasn’t a football guy, so I explained to him that the punter is not the kicker — that they’re two different people with two entirely different jobs. He says that now, when he watches games and sees the punt formation, he’ll be like, “Hey, that’s what Johnny does!”

So he’s learning.


Being a punter isn’t as glamorous as it sounds. I’m sure you didn’t think it was all that glamorous to begin with, but the truth is, like anything, it has its upsides and downsides. I mean, if I pin the other team down inside the 10-yard line, guys aren’t lining up to high-five me. Nobody in the stands is getting out of their seat to cheer. If anybody gets out of their seat when I’m on the field, it’s probably to grab a hot dog or a beer.

I’m the bathroom-break song at a concert … but I’m O.K. with that.

On game day, 95% of being a punter is waiting around. For most of the game, I’m just standing on the sidelines, trying to keep things light and encourage the rest of the guys. Then, when it’s my time to shine, I gotta go execute, because I don’t get that many opportunities.

But it’s not like I just show up on Sunday like, “Hey, guys. How was your week? I’m here to punt now….”

There’s much more to it than that.

Johnny HekkerMark J. Terrill/AP Images

True story: I actually wanted to be a quarterback.

I mean, I was a quarterback … in high school. I had every intention of playing quarterback in college, too. Growing up in Bothell, Washington, I always dreamed of playing in what was then the Pac-10. Oregon State was one of the schools I was considering. I attended the Beavers’ quarterback camp in high school, and talked to the coaches after they watched me throw. They said they would be in touch.

A few weeks later, I got a call from their special teams coach. I remember thinking, This is kinda weird … why would the special teams coach be calling me?

In college recruiting, coaches are typically responsible for a specific region. So you could be a wide receiver, but — because you live in a certain area — get recruited by a team’s running backs coach. So I figured the special teams coach was calling me because I was in his region.

Turns out Oregon State had already made an offer to another quarterback in my class, and they didn’t have enough scholarships to offer another QB.

So they had another idea.

“We watched some of your film,” the coach said. My highlight tape was about seven minutes long — six minutes of me slinging the rock, one minute of me punting.

He had watched the final minute.

“We think you could come here as a preferred walk-on. We don’t have a punter, and we think we can turn you into a scholarship punter.”

He almost made it sound like one of those halftime gimmicks, like sinking a half-court shot to win free tuition, or seeing who can throw the most footballs into giant Dr. Pepper cans to win an oversized check.

“You can come down and compete for the job. Whoever wins it will get a scholarship.”

I had gotten a couple of offers to play quarterback at smaller schools, but playing in the Pac-10 was a goal of mine. Oregon State had the prepharmacy major I wanted and I really liked the coaches … all I had to do was win the starting punting job.

Problem was, I didn’t really know how to punt. I knew that if you kicked a spiral, that was good. But after that, I knew about as much about punting as my future neighbor.

But I decided to take a leap of faith. I agreed to walk on at Oregon State, sacrificing my desire to play quarterback for my dream of playing in the Pac-10. The summer before my freshman year, I went down to a kicking and punting camp in Alabama to essentially learn how to punt.

TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 09: Punter Johnny Hekker #7 of the Oregon State Beavers kicks the football during the college football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona. The Beavers defeated the Wildcats 29-27. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)TUCSON, AZ - OCTOBER 09: Punter Johnny Hekker #7 of the Oregon State Beavers kicks the football during the college football game against the Arizona Wildcats at Arizona Stadium on October 9, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona. The Beavers defeated the Wildcats 29-27. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)Christian Petersen/Getty Images

I went to train with coach Mike McCabe at his One On One Kicking camp — one of the elite kicking and punting camps in the country. On the first day, I walked onto the field wearing the same clunky hightop cleats I had worn while playing quarterback in high school. So The coaches told me that the first thing I had to do was to get a pair of soccer cleats, something really tight on my foot that would help me get a good feel for the ball and make solid contact, and that wouldn’t result in me wasting any energy. A thicker shoe, I was told, would absorb the energy from my foot instead of transferring it to the football, decreasing my punting power.

So before I even got on the field they were probably thinking, This guy doesn’t know what he’s doing.

I was working out with other incoming freshmen — true punters who were recruited to be starters at their respective universities. And once I got on the field and we started punting footballs, the other guys were smashing them. Every time. Bombs away.

For me it was more like … smash one, shank four.

I noticed that when the other guys punted, everything was super compact. They’d catch the ball, take a couple of short, choppy steps and then boot the hell out of it.

But I was all over the place.

When I was in high school, most teams didn’t focus on blocking punts, so I would have all day back there to get the kick off. I would catch the snap, fiddle with the ball a bit and then take three or four steps before launching it. But in college you’re playing against all the fastest guys from high school, and they’re coming hard for the block just about every time.

Plus, I’m six-foot-five, all legs. So I was taking long, sweeping strides.

That’s when I first learned about operation time, or get-off time, which is the time from the moment the ball is snapped to the moment it comes off your foot. Optimal get-off time is somewhere around 1.9 seconds, which seemed lightning fast to me.

So once the coaches identified the things I needed to work on — which was pretty much everything — I stopped punting footballs and started working on the individual steps of the punting process. Because the art of punting has little to do with actually kicking the ball, and everything to do with what happens before.

First, we worked on catching the snap. When I caught the ball, I was bringing it into my body, like a receiver trying to secure a pass. But bringing it into my body meant that I had to bring it back out in order to drop it and punt, which was wasted motion — which was wasted time.

The coaches made me catch 100 snaps before they let me move on to anything else, and I had to get it right every time — away from my body, laces up, repeat.

Next we worked on my steps.

Like I said, I’m six-foot-five, all legs. If you’ve ever seen me run, you know why people tell me I have the gait of a giraffe. So my long strides were robbing me of power. How to keep my long legs in tight for short, choppy steps — almost like winding up to coil your energy before driving it up into the football — was probably the most difficult thing for me to learn.

And I use the word coil because when we finally worked on punting an actual football, I learned that I had been approaching things all wrong. I thought that forward momentum was how you generated kicking power. But a punter’s power actually comes from his plant foot — from the ground up. So when you drop the ball, instead of swinging your leg forward and driving the ball out in front of you like a field goal kicker, you have to drive vertically off your plant foot — kind of like a high jumper — and explode up through the football.

 

That’s me on one of my return trips to the camp in Alabama. It’s hard to clock it without being able to see the long snapper, but the get-off time there is around 2.0 seconds, even with a bit of a low snap.

But I definitely had to get worse before I got better. There was a lot of repetition, and a lot of shanked punts. But because of the great coaching I received at One on One Kicking, I went to Oregon State and won the starting punting job — and a scholarship — as a true freshman.

Crazy story: There were actually two walk-on freshman punters at Oregon State that year — me, and Ryan Allen — and we had both been at Coach McCabe’s camp in Alabama the summer before. Ryan redshirted his freshman year and was my backup in 2009. The next season, since I had the only scholarship for a punter, Ryan transferred to Louisiana Tech, where he went on to win back-to-back Ray Guy awards (as the nation’s best punter). Today, he plays for the Patriots and has a Super Bowl ring.

So two knuckleheads who walked on at Oregon State at the same time both made their way to the NFL. Pretty cool.

And Coach McCabe has done so much for us — teaching me how to punt and taking Ryan from a good punter to the best in the nation — that we still train with him today.

hekkerAP Images

So now that I’ve given you the same Punting 101 course that I got, let’s talk about some of the finer points of the craft.

If you’re thinking, Wait, we’re still talking about punting? I don’t blame you. But I promise I’ll try to make it as exciting as humanly possible.

So I’ll start by talking about Devin Hester.

That guy terrified me — and probably every other punter in the league. The first time I punted to him was in the third game of my rookie season. I had obviously seen his highlights, so in my mind, punting to him could result in three possible outcomes:

  • A punt that goes out of bounds
  • A fair catch
  • A return that brought the ball back halfway — or maybe all the way

With a guy like Devin, you really have to be on point with your directional punting. I mean, you can’t just punt the ball down the middle of the field and let him choose where he wants to go. You have to use the sideline as a defender, pin him into a corner and give your coverage team a chance to bottle him up.

Sounds simple — but what makes directional punting so difficult is that when you punt the ball, you want it to spiral so it cuts through the air, increasing distance and hang time. But a spiraling ball doesn’t fly off your foot straight. If you’re rightfooted, a spiraling ball is going to naturally fade to the right because of the way the ball spins.

So you’re never facing the direction in which you’d like the ball to go. You just gotta know how much your ball fades, account for the wind and adjust accordingly. That’s what makes directional punting so difficult. Kicking it out of bounds is equally tricky because of the way the ball fades in the air off your foot, but also because the referees don’t mark the ball out of bounds where it lands, but instead where it crosses the plane of the sideline in the air. So unless the conditions are perfect and you’re really striking the ball well, it’s usually a last resort.

Forcing a fair catch is actually your best option — and there’s actually a recipe for that.

Let’s say you want to hit a 45-yard punt. For the ball and your punt coverage team to meet at the returner, forcing him to signal for a fair catch, you need 4.5 seconds of hang time. For a 50-yard punt, you need 5.0 seconds of hang time. See where this is going?

The amount of hang time relative to the distance of the punt gives the coverage team enough time to get downfield, forcing the returner to make a fair catch instead of giving him space to return it.

When you start getting up into punts of more than 50 yards, the hang time gets harder to nail consistently — just like when a field goal kicker’s success-rate drops when he gets beyond 50 yards. How far you want to punt the ball just depends on where your team is positioned on the field.

So I guess the moral of the story is: Punters are people, too. It’s kind of a thankless job, and it does tick me off a little when somebody says, “Oh, you’re a punter. You’re not a real football player.” I mean, I think I speak for all punters and kickers when I say that we have a ton of respect for the guys who are out there the whole game banging, getting tackled and doing all the dirty work. That’s just not what we’re asked to do.

We practice all week just like the rest of the team. We watch film all week, too, studying the tendencies of opposing special teams units, focusing on their punt-blocking tendencies and protection packages and seeing where we might be able to exploit them with fakes. We’re in the weight room and out on the practice field working on our timing and situational punting — all the same stuff the other units work on.

There’s also a different level of pressure to what we do.

When my team is backed up in its own end zone late in the fourth quarter with a two-point lead, and I need to back the opposing team up out of field goal range so they can’t just kick an easy game-winner — and if I don’t do my job, my team loses — that’s pressure. And that’s one of the things I love about my job.

There are definitely times when I miss playing quarterback. I mean, there’s nothing like the thrill of hitting a guy in a tight window and watching him taking it to the house, or being in the huddle during a long touchdown drive.

I’m just lucky that I’ve had coaches who have let me sling the rock from time to time.

Remember: I’m six-foot-five, all legs, with the gait of a giraffe. So you won’t catch me running up the middle on a fake punt anytime soon. But it’s definitely a throwback to my high school glory days when my number gets called on a fake — a little nerve-racking, but still pretty cool.

Being a punter is definitely not as glamorous as playing quarterback, but hey, this is the life I chose when I walked on at Oregon State. I took a chance, and I wouldn’t take it back for the world.

I may be on the sidelines for 95% of the game, but at least I have the best seat in the house.

Johnny Hekker
Los Angeles Rams