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Special Teams of the Mountain West Conference: the 2011 Punters

The two most measurable statistics affecting the outcome of a football game are turnovers and field position.   And at no time are those two elements more at risk than when the ball is punted or kicked.   Turnovers are game-killers and field postion is critical to both sides of the field.  That is why the position of punter is so fundamental to Mountain West Conference coaching staffs. They know that special teams with good punters are very important in establishing the outcome of all football games.

In the MWC, its not unusual for the entire coaching staff and head coach to be involved in the coaching of units within the special teams.  But within the punting unit, decisions are usually left to that coach assigned.  And the punter has to have the personnel on his team who can give him protection and good blocking long enough to get the ball in the air.  Two rules: protection first and coverage second.  That is how the punter developes confidence beyond his own abilities---by having confidence in his team. 

And what does the MWC coach look for in a good punter?   A good punter is one who can punt the ball an average of 37.5 yards, and be quick enough to avoid a blocked punt---say, a catch and kick time after the snap of about 1.4 seconds.  And he has to be able to kick it high (hang time), giving the ball about 4.1 seconds on a 40-yard punt in order to give his team time to get down to other end of the field to prevent a run-back.  All of that takes poise and confidence, and nerves of steel that can ignor the freight train of opposing linemen bearing down on him. Punters also need to be accurate, with the ability to kick the pigskin into a particular part of the field and away from certain players, preferably to pin them deep and prevent a touchback.  Having quarterback abilities is necessary in case of a trick or busted play.  And it always helps to have the skills of a running back in case the punter has to run for it.  That's one reason why he has to be speedy.  Another reason he needs to be fast is to get down the field after the kick and help with coverage.  A punter also needs to be a good tackler in case he finds himself as the last line of defense against a hard-charging punt-returner.  All this requires strong leadership and the ability to take charge of the team.

And lastly, a good punter has to have acting abilities.  A punter has to be able to convince the referee he was hurt in case he gets grazed by an opponent in order to get a "roughing the kicker" penalty, which could be a huge momentum changer for his team. If he can do all that, then more than one of the MWC coaches will want to talk to him about being a backup or even the starter on the teams listed below:  

The Air Force Falcons already have #96 sophomore David Baska, 6' 175 lbs, who is probably going to be the Falcons’ punter. He had a good spring practice and emerged as the Falcon's No. 1 punter in spring ball. But head coach Troy Calhoun won't speculate on who is starting just yet, saying in March, "It's wide open." So for now at least there is no backup punter listed on the roster.  Baska, from Overland Park, Kansas, is also expected to be the holder for placekicker Erik Soderberg.  Perhaps one of the surprise punters is quarterback Tim Jefferson.  No really.  He attempted 12 punts last season and averaged 45.2 yards per kick and one was a 71-yarder.  But you have to believe Jefferson would be a longshot to be both starting QB and the punter.

Boise State Broncos #49 senior Brad Elkin, 6' 2" 201 lbs, did not play in the second half of last season and redshirted instead.  He only punted 11 times with average of 35.8 yards (one was for 48 yards).  That is down from 2009, when he averaged 40.2 per kick.  That was why Kyle Brotzman took over punting duties last season in addition to placekicking.  This season, it will be up to Elkin to get it done out there and get back to being that highly rated performer he was in Tacoma when he was recruited .  If not, then he will once again find himself warming the benches this winter. 

To give Elkin incentive, he has some tough competition for the starting job this year.  A walk-on from Beaverton, Oregon, #14 sophomore Trevor Harman, 6' 2" 203 lbs.  Harmon made a monster punt of 80-yards during the spring game and that definately got the coaches attention.  That came on top of his stats last year that are also pretty impressive.  As the Bronco backup punter he averaged 44.7 yards a kick and boomed one for 64 yards.  He also performed the duties as the kickoff specialist, and kicked off 82 times for an average of 63.8 yards each kick.  Nine of those were touchbacks.

There was never any doubt that the Colorado State Rams would pick #41 junior Pete Kontodiakos, 6' 3" 219 lbs, to be their punter.  He returns to the Ram's Special Teams squad for his third year and all three has been as the starter.  And why not when he is one of the best punters in the conference?  As a freshman in 2009, he started in all 12 games and averaged 40.9 yards on 42 punts.  He put 12 inside the 20, and 10 of those punts were for 50-plus yards.  Last season Kontodiakos once again played in all 12 games and improved his average to 43.7 yards a punt and ended up with second-team all-conference honors from the league's coaches and media, as well as from Phil Steele. 

The New Mexico Lobos also have a good punt specialist on their Special Teams: #35 sophmore Ben Skaer, 6' 186 lbs.  In 2009, he redshirted.  That year he was named the #1 kicker and #3 Punter in the Louis Aguiar kicking camp.  As a freshman in 2010, he managed 85 punts for the Lobos, with an average of 40.5-yards per kick---12 of those punts were for 50 yards or more.  He also put 18 kicks inside the 20.  His career-long punt is 59 yards against Colorado State.  This year will only be his second year on the field and he is looking to add to those stats

When you look at San Diego State Aztecs #14 senior Brian Stahovich, 6' 195 lbs, you know right up front he is one of the top punters in the nation and his stastics prove it.  This guy was on the 2009 Ray Guy Award Watch List, and in 2010 was named the Preseason first-team all-league punter by Phil Steele, Sporting News, and Lindy's.  Last season he booted 53 punts with an average of 45.4 yards each, and 10 of those punts were at Missouri where one of them went 67 yards.   He only punted once at Wyoming, but it was an 89 yard monster.  Stahovich ranks fifth in school history in career punting yards and he still has another year to go to pad that record. 

Texas Christian Horned Frogs #47 senior Anson Kelton is a 6' 4" 280 lb. punting giant in every sense of the word.  If you remember the 2011 Rose Bowl then you know what he did to Wisconsin: pinned them inside their own 11-yard line three times, and twice inside the 5.  Kelton is a rock-solid performer who gets the job done and his stats prove it.  On the season he averaged 41.6 yards per punt.  Of his 42 punts, 17 were inside the 20, and 8 were for 50 yards or more.  His season long was a 58-yarder against BYU.   

If UNLV Rebels  junior Chase Lansford's name is starting to sound a little familar here it is because he has also been mentioned as the probable starter as the UNLV Rebels placekicker.  It seems that the junior college transfer, who is 6' 2" 195 lbs, is expected to handle all of the Rebels kicking duties, including that of punter.  Don't worry, Rebel fans, he can handle it.  He is the son of former LA Rams kicker Mike Lansford.  Chase performed very well last season at Santa Anna Community College.  Last season he not only kicked a 52-yard field goal in his first game, but he easily handled the punting duties, averaging 43.7 yards each punt. Lansford was also a JC Gridwire's Preseason All-America placekicker in 2010.

The Wyoming Cowboys have #28 senior Austin McCoy, 6' 3" 208 lbs, as punter.  The 2010 All-Mountain West Honorable Mention was rated #3 in the conference and #5 nationally among punters.  He averaged 42.8 per kick, and ended up on the Ray Guy Award Watch List last season.  He only allowed 26 returns on 68 kicks last season.  He particularly likes to kick the air out of the ball when he plays Boise State.  Last year he punted 5 times against the Broncos and averaged an astounding 53.2 yards per kick.    

All these punters have one thing in common besides being in the same conference: they know that their performances will come down to the two most crucial aspects of football---field position and turnovers.  These punters are going to be a big part of that equation this fall.  Any one of them can give their team the opportunities to make the big, game-winning plays.  The punter holds sway of the shifts and changes in on-field momentum, and to a large degree controls the flow and tempo of the game.   Coaches throughout the Mountain West Conference also know this and the punter you will see on the field in 2011, will be the best punter who displays the skills, leadership, execution, and confidence in both himself and his abilities.