Battle of the Bs as Cougs eye new punter

FOR THE FIRST TIME IN four years, the Cougars find themselves in unfamiliar special teams territory headed into spring ball. Kyle Basler is no longer ensconced 14-yards deep. WSU needs a punter and two candidates, Darryl Blunt and Fritz Brayton, figure to wage a heated battle. By the end of the spring session, one of them will be the new man.

"We'll name a starter after spring ball," said assistant coach Kelly Skipper. "Hopefully, one of them will step up."

Brayton is a 6-3, 190-pound third-year sophomore-to-be who walked on at WSU in 2004. His pedigree, though, is nothing less than sterling. His dad, Fritz Sr., played receiver at WSU under Jim Sweeney, and his grandfather is the legendary Cougar baseball coach Bobo Brayton. In addition, cousin Tyler Brayton plays for the Oakland Raiders.

Blunt (6-0, 186) walked on at WSU this past fall after a brief stint at Portland State. He has plenty of confidence to go along with a huge leg. And he eats, sleeps and breathes punting. Should he ever need a reminder, all he has to do is look at the tattoo on his leg. More on that later.

Skipper said the coaches have seen enough of both players to know the job will be in good hands no matter who wins the competition. Going into spring workouts, which commence March 21, neither has a definitive edge.

The No. 1 criteria for deciding who will get the job is well known to both: Consistency. The benchmark is 45 yards with a hang time of 4.5 seconds or longer.

Skipper says Blunt has very good mechanics. "Two to three days I'll have someone snap to me and have a returner," said Blunt. "Other days I'll just go out by myself and work on directional stuff or drops."

THE BOOMING PUNT might draw oohs and aahs. But the harder a ball is kicked, the greater the chance of a low, long drive followed by a big return. There's also increased chance of seeing one those 20-yard right-turn wobblers. Indeed, punting is about more than a strong leg. It requires finesse. Consider the seemingly simple act of dropping the ball from your hands to your foot. The lower the drop, the less room there is for error -- which is why Blunt and Brayton have learned from Basler to decrease their drop distance.

"I talked to Kyle Basler when I got here and he told me about all of his own research," said Brayton. "I've kept my drop a lot lower. I still call Basler. I get a lot of help from him still ... a lot of advice from Kyle on how to kick within myself."

Blunt, also a Basler pupil, has sacrificed distance as well in order to gain more consistency.

"I learned a lot from Kyle, to have a lower drop and more extension -- it's all in your extension," said Blunt. "I'd rather average 43 yards with a 5-second hang time than have a 55- yard punt and have a guy return it on us. Learning from Basler, one of the best, has helped me be more mature. I'm probably at the top of my game right now."

Punting practice in the off-season can be a lonely existence, but it doesn't have to be. "Most of the time I get a long snapper and if I'm lucky enough, I get a returner to shag balls," said Brayton.

BOTH WILL BE on the clock every snap this spring session, for both getaway time and hang time.

"They've both improved strength-wise, but we need to basically see what they can do when it counts," said Skipper. "We think it will be a good competition, whoever can be the most consistent between the two."

Both Blunt and Brayton have worked on cutting down their steps from three to two. Doba suggested during the recent Pierce County Cougar Club dinner the Cougs could move Blunt back a step and have him remain a three-stepper if need be.

"We're trying to change him from a three-stepper to a two stepper and he's been adjusting to that," said Skipper.

"Mentality wise, Brayton seems like he's matured," says Skipper. "You can see the difference in him. He's serious about his business."

BRAYTON REALIZED IN high school that football spoke to him more than the sport, baseball, his family name is so connected with.

Washington State, UTEP and Western Oregon asked the first-team all-league selection out of Portland's Westview High to walk on. With the ties he had in Pullman and after talking with Bill Doba, he made the choice to become a Cougar. He said he doesn't feel any extra pressure having one of the Palouse's more famous last names.

"I'm my toughest critic," said Brayton. "Over Christmas break I went out and punted with my dad. It'll look good to him but I'll say a bunch of four-letter words because while the outcome was still good, it wasn't (perfect). I want to be consistent. And I'm having better and better days."

BLUNT, FROM BELLFLOWER, Calif., used his redshirt last season after coming to Washington State off a grayshirt year at Portland State. He lettered in football, baseball and basketball at St. John Bosco High and averaged 43.9 yards per punt as a senior en route to earning all-league honors and Specialist of the Year plaudits.

"When I was a little kid I always wanted to kick the ball," said Blunt. "My sophomore year in high school was when I really started to take it serious."

So seriously, in fact, he sports a tattoo of a punter on his plant leg.

"Let it be known, D. Blunt is ready," he says.

BOTH HAVE SPENT just about every spare moment honing their craft this offseason. Sandwiched around classes is time in the weight room followed by punting, day after day, week after week.

Brayton usually finishes his day with a second trip to the weight room. A typical Blunt day runs from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m., followed by homework.

JUST AS IMPORTANT to finding a punter this spring will be finding the guy who snaps to him. Troy Bienemann, as well as Adam West and Riley Fitt-Chappell have all graduated, opening up a slot. Tony Thompson and Mkristo Bruce are among the frontrunners for the job.

"Mkristo is a good athlete and he's been a quarterback so he can throw the ball," said Skipper. "If you can throw the ball, you can snap."

Thompson has become a Blunt and Brayton favorite over the offseason, hitting the practice field with in his shoulder pads so as to simulate game snap conditions.

The Cougars led the league in punt coverage this past season, and the entire coverage unit returns in 2006.

"All we lose is a snapper and a punter," laughed Skipper. "But if we can just get the guy who can get it up there, we can go down and cover."

As for the competition between Blunt and Brayton, the pair are good friends on and off the field. But both are also focused on winning the job this spring.

"Me and Fritz are good together," said Blunt. "At Portland State me and the other punter didn't get along but me and Fritz, we work out together and help each other out a lot."

"All the talk about who might have the upper hand really doesn't matter," said Brayton. "Whoever kicks the ball more consistently is going to be the starter."

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