His leg packs a Ponch

How Iranian-born Abtin Iranmanesh acquired the nickname of a character from the TV show CHiPs is a story in itself. But how Iranmanesh, a walk-on, has seized the punting and kickoff duties for the 2003 Commodores makes for an even better story.

In the press box before every football game, a Vanderbilt media representative routinely advises the visiting radio announcer of all the difficult-to-pronounce names on the Commodore roster. One of the names that always arises is that of senior kicker/punter Abtin Iranmanesh (Ab-ten I-rah-ma-nesh).

For the record, however, no one on Vanderbilt's football team, including Head Coach Bobby Johnson, ever refers to Iranmanesh by his real name. They defer instead to the unlikely moniker of "Ponch".

How the native of Tehran, Iran acquired the nickname of a character from the TV show CHiPs is a story in itself. But how Iranmanesh, a walk-on, has seized the punting and kickoff duties for the 2003 Commodores is making for an even better story.

"It is a great story," said Johnson. "Before this year, he had never punted before in a game."

The Iranmanesh family moved from Iran to the USA when Abtin was three. As a high schooler at Bob Jones High in Huntsville, Abtin's game was soccer. His junior year the football coach invited him to give placekicking a try, since the kicker from the previous year had graduated. He did kickoffs and field goal attempts that year, and his senior year he added PAT's and punting.

There were no college coaches beating down his door in high school, no scholarship offers. Iranmanesh chose Vanderbilt not as a place to play football, but as a place to prepare for the real world. But he did contact Coach Woody Widenhofer in the summer of 2000, and asked if he could try out during fall camp.

"It was just something I wanted to pursue," he says today.

Iranmanesh saw no action at all in 2000 and 2001. In 2002, Bobby Johnson's first year, all the kicking jobs were thrown wide open. Iranmanesh thought he had finally found his niche when he won the kickoff job in preseason practice.

He handled the kickoffs vs. Georgia Tech and Furman, but the sure-footed Greg Johnson eventually beat him out. Iranmanesh was not used in the season's final ten games.

"Ponch didn't give up, though," Bobby Johnson said. "He kept working."

Greg Johnson, who handled all the kicking roles for the 2002 team, abruptly decided to transfer at the end of spring practice, and once again Coach Johnson was left with several huge holes to fill. He hurriedly granted a punting scholarship to a high school senior, Kyle Keown, but there were still concerns about the punting job.

"[Ponch] came back this summer and I asked him if he'd ever punted, and he said, 'Yeah, I can punt.'" Johnson said. "I thanked him for telling me, after letting me suffer all summer."

In fall camp Keown demonstrated a live leg as a punter, but Iranmanesh showed the better consistency. Johnson ultimately awarded the job to Iranmanesh, the fourth-year walk-on, and opted to redshirt Keown.

"[Iranmanesh] has a very strong and live leg, but punting is a lot of technique and a lot of study, so he did a great job of developing that skill," Johnson said.

Realizing that he lacks the extraordinary leg strength that Greg Johnson possessed, Iranmanesh said he strives for an optimum combination of length and hang time.

"A 60-yard punt that has three seconds of hang time isn't going to help you out much," he says. "And a punt that has five seconds of hang time and goes 20 yards isn't very good either.

"Coach Johnson hasn't really addressed me about changing anything [in my technique] at this point. I think he just wants me to stay consistent with it.

"I still feel really new to punting. When I came in, I wasn't a punter. I hadn't punted for three years, really. I just picked it up. I punted for the scout team last year."

Iranmanesh made his first college punt in this year's opener vs. Ole Miss. In the first few games, as one might expect, he shanked a few. But the improvement from week to week has been noticeable-- and in Saturday's memorable first half vs. Georgia, Iranmanesh might have been the MVP.

The 80-yarder came in the first quarter. On fourth down at the Vandy 6, Iranmanesh booted a perfect line drive from the 6 that rocketed over the Georgia returner's head and took a Vandy roll. It skittered into the end zone just a few yards inside the pylon-- and Iranmanesh's name went into the Vandy record books.

On its next possession Vandy drove to the Georgia 40 before being stopped, and Iranmanesh angled one out of bounds at the Georgia 4 to pin the Bulldogs deep. On the following possession, he hit a perfect pooch that hit inside the Georgia 1 and bounced backward to the 3, where it was downed by a teammate.

"He gets better and better every week," Johnson said. "He's meant a lot to this football team."

Almost unnoticed by many fans is the fact that he has won the kickoff job away from Nathan True-Daniels, another walk-on. Vanderbilt has had very few kickers over the years that consistently get kickoffs into the end zone, but Iranmanesh is doing it now sporadically.

"I've really found a groove with my kickoffs," he says. "I've got my steps down, and I'm feeling good about it. I hope it can continue."

"He's kicked a great percentage of his kickoffs into the end zone," said Johnson. "That certainly helps your kick coverage a whole lot."

About that nickname-- it dates back to seventh grade. While watching TV with his brother, an episode of the old CHiPs series came on. "Hey, you look like Ponch," said his brother, of the motorcycle-straddling Frank Poncharella character played by Erik Estrada.

It stuck. Iranmanesh has grown fond of it, and today uses it to help put others at ease with his real name, which most Westerners find hard to pronounce.

He will graduate next May with a degree in Economics. His Mom and Dad, a dentist and engineer in Huntsville, have paid his way through.

"Vanderbilt has been the best experience for me," he says. "I couldn't have asked for anything more."

"He's just done a great job for us," Johnson said. "If we could get every player performing like that, we would be in good position."


Photos of Abtin Iranmanesh by Brent Wiseman copyright 2003 for VandyMania.

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