Swedenburg Faces Top-Rated Wildcat Returners

Look, the guy is an athlete. Or at least he was in high school playing a variety of sports. Still Baker Swedenburg appreciates the principle of a man knowing his limitations. Which is why Mississippi State's ace punter is content sticking to kicking and turning tackling over to teammates.

"You know, I don't really like to draw attention to myself," Swedenburg said. "So it's fine." Being bored, he means, with only his boot-it-away duty to keep occupied. It's better than being terrified after all.

"Last year I attempted to get in the way of Brandon Boykin at Georgia," the punter dead-panned. "I was like, just don't kill me." Not for Swedenburg are any banzai charges into the chaos of kicking coverage, nor are there any tackles on his 2012 resume…though snapper Winston Chapman found his way into one.

Mississippi State is completely content with Swedenburg's contributions to the cause. In his second season as starter, he has established himself as one of the most competent and consistent punters in the conference. In the country, even. He ended the season with a 40.8-yard average on 52 kicks. Now, that isn't the highest average around; in fact it was a whole yard off his 2011 season rate.

But then straight-forward averages aren't the story for Swedenburg or Mississippi State. For one obvious thing, this year Swedenburg was typically kicking from better (offensive) field position than in '11. Meaning sheer distance was not the objective. Hang-time and placement took priority and Swedenburg surely delivered.

In conjunction with coverage which did set the national regular-season pace, with just eight yards allowed on the (only) twelve Swedenburg punts opponents even had chance or choice to return. Some thirty other punts were fair-caught under coverage pressure and three more went for touchbacks. Oh, and none once was Swedenburg blocked, a credit to Chapman's steady delivery and poised unit protection.

He could and even should take credit for most of the fair-caught kicks. After all, somebody has to hit it high enough and to the prescribed spot and Swedenburg has mastered the art. But the man would rather tip the proverbial hat to teammates arriving at said-spot around the time the ball comes down.

"Oh yeah, you have (gunners) Darius Slay and Jamerson Love, the two fastest guys on the team. As long as I put it in the right spot all I have to do is hit it good, you know they'll be down there in no time. They make me look very good." And, spare Swedenburg from the nasty necessity of getting involved with actual tackling. " "I trust those guys, I like seeing it when they do that."

There is one down-side to Swedenburg's style of punting, as well as the restrictions set by kicking so much more often from midfield or closer. His is not an average that is going to win media awards, though one would think coaches could have a better appreciation of his numbers. So no, Swedenburg is not the All-SEC punter for 2012.

Surprised, no. Annoyed? Maybe a bit.

"Well, obviously I'm a little disappointed. But it's definitely not a main thing that I worry about. Something interesting, they call it the Ray Guy Award but it seems they're more concerned with who averages the most. And Ray Guy averaged about 42 yards his whole career. So a little disappointed, but it's not a big deal."

And there's always 2013 to make another bid, though Swedenburg—who first signed with State in 2008 and delayed joining the team a year—already has completed senior academic status and is working towards another degree. Or he could try writing a thesis on the craft of kicking the football away, something he sees as an under-appreciated art.

"Absolutely, a lot goes into it. A lot of people think you catch it, kick it and hope for the best. But you can break it down." Or you can wonder if this #39 (there are two others on this roster by the way) is having a breakdown going through his pre-kick routine.

You notice I wave my arms, that's just to get me to relax and stay loose. Then I take a little jab-step, and then two-steps; I have to make sure my drop is right and my leg swing is good. It's down to a science." We'll take his word for it. Swedenburg has put in plenty of research though, going back to high school trips to the Guy punting camps in Birmingham and Hattiesburg.

"With him it was a lot about the drop. In punting drop is probably 90% of it all, of course you've to catch it and kick it. That bad punt I had against Kentucky it was just the drop, that was it. I mean everything else was perfect, it was just a bad drop.

"So he emphasizes that. I remember in high school I'd walk around the house, just make sure my drop was just right, bounce it up for, like, an hour. It would annoy my parents really bad!" The folks have long-since gotten over any aggravations though as the boy's practice was parlayed into a Bulldog scholarship.

"They're thrilled because they raised me a State fan. And they get in their own little mode before a game." Leaving the unasked question if they too do arm-waves and jab-steps and such. Baker said he last saw Guy a couple of months ago and now they don't even talk punting much if at all. "He's really laid-back, a tall skinny country boy is really all he is. Just an awesome guy. I haven't seen him punt, he says his back is too messed-up. But I looked him up on Youtube."

Meanwhile Swedenburg has had weeks of watching Northwestern clips in preparation for the Gator Bowl. He didn't punt here two years ago, but did have a strong experience in the Music City Bowl with a 41.2 yard average on five kicks in Nashville. So he's used to post-season play. But the Wildcats are an entirely different sort of matchup than was Wake Forest.

"Right, it should be an interesting bowl game. I think Northwestern's guy is up there, top in the country." He indeed is, albeit not officially as tailback Vernon Mark falls one return shy of meeting NCAA minimums for ranking. But his 20.1 yard average would lead that list. And the Wildcat team rates third-best in punt returns nationally at 17.5 yards. Put another way, they get twice as many yards every punt as State has allowed the entire season.

Then again the Bulldogs, punter and coverers alike, have seen their share of outstanding talents catching kicks. "You know, we've faced some good punt returners in the past. Like Joe Adams (Arkansas) last year, and we didn't change anything and that was one of my better games." So Swedenburg and squad are prepared. Respectful, but prepared.

By the way, and speaking of return talents… State has players who can do damage on special teams too in LaDarius Perkins, Chad Bumphis, Jameon Lewis, et.al. But it is worth asking a specialist's opinion, who impressed Swedenburg most in punt return during bowl practices?

"(Brandon) Holloway, for sure. I punted one and OK, that's a good one…then all of a sudden he's out the gate and I'm tired trying to run him down! So definitely Holloway, I'm looking forward to seeing him next year for sure."

Especially as Swedenburg won't have to tackle the freshman flash. Or anyone else if punting plays go as planned in real games. So, what exactly would Swedenburg do if faced with the need to bring down a return man?

"Probably lead with my feet, like Bobby Boucher," he suggested. "Nah, we don't practice too much tackling."

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