Punters Compete, Learn New Styles

One of the understated battles of the spring football season has been the competition for the punting job, where a pair of players are working on mastering the different types of kicks in the WVU playbook.

Sophomore Eric Daugherty and junior transfer Phil Brady are the top two competitors to replace the graduated Todd James as WVU's punter in 2004. Both have shown good leg strength, but are still working on mastering the rugby kick, where the punter sprints to the right and boots the ball on the run.

The intent of the maneuver is both to avoid a possible punt block and to kick the ball away from dangerous return men. WVU used the kick several times last season, usually with good success. However, mastering the technique, whihc involves a full speed sprint to the right followed by a kick on the run, is more difficult than it seems.

"I've been taught my whole life to stay straight while kicking the ball, so when you have to start rolling out, it throws off everything I've learned about kicking," said Brady, who comes to WVU as a transfer from East Carolina. "It's really different, having to add that extra lateral movement, and then getting the direction (of the kick) down is the most important part of it."

Another difficult part of the punters' regimen is switching back and forth between different types of punts quickly. During a game, punters usually have time to prepare for the kick, and rarely punt more than once in a series. Practice, however is a different matter. During those sessions, the punters will usually take several kicks in quick succession, and those will be a mix of both conventional kicks and rugby style boots.

"When you find out what kind of punt is going to be, you just concentrate on it," Brady noted. "It's not confusing or anything, you know the call, so you do what you are taught to do."

Daugherty, who provided good competition for James last year and appears to have a slight edge in this year's punting derby so far, agrees. Just like a swing key in golf, the Morgantown native has a thought that he focuses on when the rugby punt is called.

"It is tough switching back and forth between the regular punts and the rugby kick because the leg swing is completely different", he explained. On regular punts you want to follow straight up and through the ball, but on rugby kicks you keep you leg down and come across your body. It can be tough to switch back and forth and keep everything straight. The ball basically will go wherever your hips are pointed, so you have to turn your hips where you want it to go and follow through that way."

Adding to the complexity of the rugby punt is a crossover, which WVU employed on a couple of occasions last year. On that call, the punter still sprints out to the right, but kicks the ball back to the left across the field, again in an attempt to cross up opposing return specialists. The Mountaineers used that against Maryland and dangerous return man Steve Suter, and will probably hold it in reserve for special situations this year as well.

"We've been working on that as a little bit of a changeup," Daugherty said of the crossover option. I don't know if we'll use it, but we did once or twice last year. That's another thing we like to throw in at times."

Neither punter is built along the classic lines of James, who had the classic long, lanky physique. However, both posess strong lower bodies and have demonstrated their abilities with high booming kicks during practice. The key, of course, is finding the player that can do the same during games.

Although they do share the same type of body build, their routes to WVU were much different. Brady, who hails from Fairfax, Va., came to West Virginia via the transfer route.

"I went to ECU out of high school, and they brought in a guy (Ryan Dougherty) during my redshirt year and put him on scholarship. They were pretty set to go with him. I saw that was going to happen, and I didn't want to be the number two guy down there, so I decided to look around," the junior said.

"I took the spring semester of 2003 off looked at different schools. I called Coach Stewart, and he was willing to give me a shot here. He was very nice about it, and said they would give me a fair look, and they have been true to their word.

Daugherty, on the other hand, is a hometown guy, which leads to the assumption that he always dreamed of kicking for the Mountaineers. While that might have been the case, it wasn't the football field where he saw himself booting the ball.

"Actually, through high school I always planned on playing soccer. This sort of happened as a last minute thing, but it was an opportunity I felt like I couldn't pass up, especially after coming and watching games here my whole life," Daugherty related. "It wasn't the first thing on my mind when I was in high school, but when the opportunity presented itself it was really exciting."

While both players have had their moments in practice, their lack of game experience is still a concern. The battle between the two contenders could continue all the way through fall practice. However, whichever player comes out on top will have had to overcome a good challenge, which should prepare him for the challenge of booting the ball when the game is on the line.

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