Ironing out the punting wrinkles

With precious little time this fall to implement his system, the 2003 season has been very much a mixed bag so far for Special Teams Coordinator Dave Ungerer. And before last Saturday at least, punter Bo Freelend epitomized the inconsistency.

"Bo is a good kid, a coachable guy," Ungerer said of Bama's punter. "He's willing to learn. But like a lot of guys, their first times being actually in the game you've got to grow with them. Like Bo, there are a lot of guys in our program right now that haven't played that much."

A tall, strong athlete with a powerful right leg, Bo Freelend won the punting job in the fall based on talent. But his performances in Bama's early games were marked by inconsistency. On one kick he'd boom the football high and deep, only to come back the next time and barely net 30 yards.

Though a junior in terms of eligibility, this is Freelend's first season to punt for Alabama.

"Was it frustrating? Oh yeah," Freelend admitted. "Every day I'd come out to practice and average 45-47 yards. Then in the games I struggled. That kind of dampens your spirits a little bit, but now that I've had a good game, hopefully I can just roll with it."

In the Tide's first four games, Freelend averaged 41.0, 34.9, 38.3 and 39.2 yards per kick. But instead of improving, he sometimes seemed to be getting worse. In Bama's fifth-game disappointing overtime loss to Arkansas, Freelend was a very poor 33.8 yards per attempt, repeatedly relinquishing pivotal field position to the Razorbacks.

Dave Ungerer was all too aware of Freelend's struggles. "He's got a big-time leg," Ungerer said. "It was just a matter of becoming more consistent. He can be an outstanding punter, he's just got to come through."

After studying film of Freelend kicking during the various games, Ungerer spotted the problem. "He had a lot of wasted motion," Ungerer explained. "Bo had a lot of gyrations. In punting you need to have a consistent mechanical approach. The ball plane when it hits the foot has to be the same all the time. What Bo was doing was giving himself more opportunities for error. That's where the inconsistency came from."

With the help of Bama's video technicians, Ungerer put together a "worst hits" (if you will) of Freelend's game punts and sat down to watch it with his player. Ungerer commented, "We got good tape on his punting form and were able to show him ‘Hey, you need to eliminate this, this and this.' We worked real hard last week on it in practice, and it resulted in a big day Saturday. Field position-wise, the work helped us tremendously. Bo responded and that allowed him to be more consistent."

Versus Southern Miss last Saturday Freelend put his lessons to good use, consistently kicking long and deep to help keep the Golden Eagles bottled up on their side of the field. For the game he averaged 45.8 yards per punt, including a long of 55 yards.

"It was really like night and day," Freelend said. "The Oklahoma game was horrible. Northern Illinois was just as bad. I had a good week of practice before Georgia and kicked fairly well in the game, but we had a blocked punt.

Freelend watches the game action from the sideline.

"To come into the Southern Miss game and average that much yardage. Hopefully we can keep going with that."

Ungerer was brought to Tuscaloosa by Head Coach Mike Shula and given marching orders to improve the Tide special teams. With almost 20 years behind him coaching football, the players know to listen when Ungerer speaks.

"He knows what he's talking about," Freelend said. "He helped me out last week with my mechanics, getting me more consistent. That was big for the Southern Miss game."

No one expects Freelend to turn into an all-star overnight, but at least he's headed in the right direction.

"The big thing was letting Bo see how much excess movement there was that prevented him from being consistent," Ungerer said. "It was just an awareness. It's a growing process for him and the rest of our players."

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