Hahnfeldt gives Vandy boost on special teams

On more than one occasion this season—four times to be exact—you might have noticed a certain No. 75 sticking his nose in for a hard tackle on kickoffs.

This was not some wedge-busting special teams ace that you saw missiling towards the opponent's return man. This was the kicker, Bryant Hahnfeldt.

Someone must have forgotten to tell him that kickers aren't supposed to do that. Apparently, this is how Hahnfeldt prefers to handle things when he isn't able to boom one for a touchback.

"I'd rather not have to make the tackle, obviously," Hahnfeldt said. "I like hitting, so it's fun, but I'd rather them not start at the 36 or something. I guess I should put the ball in the end zone further—it's on me."

As if making tackles when given the chance wasn't enough, the freshman from Montgomery Bell Academy has become a jack-of-all-trades on special teams now that he has assumed the role of punter as well.

With junior punter Kyle Keown struggling through the Ole Miss game, averaging a very shaky 26.7 yards per punt after three attempts, coaches turned to Hahnfeldt to give their punting unit some more leg. The place kicker responded by booting two punts for a total of 76 yards, and was given the nod to start against Richmond.

The week of preparation made for marked improvement, as Hahnfeldt averaged a much-improved 45.5 yards per punt in that contest. It was also enough to convince the coaches to stick with the true freshman as their punter.

"One of them was low but he kept it away from the returner. The other was a 43-yarder with a great hang time," coach Bobby Johnson said. "That's all we need. We don't need a 55-yarder every time."

Playing multiple roles is nothing new for Hahnfeldt, though. During his three years as a starter in high school, the Nashville native handled all three duties as well—kickoffs, placekicking, and punting. It was during his time at MBA that Hahnfeldt developed a reputation for superb leg strength, nailing three 47-yard field goals his senior season and allowing only 5 percent of his kickoffs to be returned.

"We were fortunate to be able to recruit Bryant Hahnfeldt last year," Johnson said. "A space opened up in our scholarship numbers, so we got him over here and he's come through for us. He's a talented kicker, and he works hard. He'll keep you in the game, he can handle the pressure."

After junior place kicker Patrick Johnson had a rough campaign in 2004, finishing with a 50 percent field goal percentage and five missed PATs, a promising new kicker like Hahnfeldt was just what the Commodores needed. He has connected on 5 of 7 field goal attempts thus far, including a 43-yarder, and is averaging over 62 yards per kickoff.

Of course, there have been a few blemishes—namely a pair of kickoffs landing out of bounds and a missed PAT—but Hahnfeldt is not letting these minor lapses faze him.

"You just let it go. It happens, but you can't dwell on it. You just don't let it happen again," Hahnfeldt said. "If you let it hang over you, your other kicks are going to be bad. It's one of those things you have to brush off."

If nothing else, the stands around Dudley Field seem to be less anxious this year when Vanderbilt sets up for a field goal attempt. Considering the high stakes of SEC football and the individual blame to which kickers are so vulnerable, this is no small accomplishment for a player who is barely removed from high school.

"When you're coming in and playing on this big of a level, it's a lot of pressure," Hahnfeldt said. "You're a little fish in a big pond."

So far, Hahnfeldt has handled the pressure well, but not until he faces his first do-or-die situation will the rookie have the chance to really prove his mettle. If all goes well, the same dogged mentality that makes him a good tackler will keep him focused on the goal—and oblivious to the enormous burden on his shoulders.

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