As good as Wisconsin's defense has been this season—and it has been spectacular—the Badgers' punt team has been even better. In four games, Wisconsin has not allowed a single punt-return yard. Credit the coverage unit, headlined by senior corner Scott Starks, who has been fantastic as a sprinter.
Principally, though, credit punter Ken DeBauche, who has been one of the Badgers' best and most consistent players since the season's opening whistle.
Only one of DeBauche's 18 punts this year has even been returned: Starks made the tackle on that play, holding Penn State's Calvin Lowry to zero yards. DeBauche, a redshirt freshman walk-on, has knocked eight punts inside the 20 and forced six fair catches.
"It's just a function of a hang time," special teams coach Brian Murphy said. "If you give our sprinters time to cover, it is hard to return one. There is no magic formula or anything like that."
In addition to hang time, though, DeBauche is getting good distance on his punts, averaging 41.6 yards per attempt. That places him just 44th in the nation in gross punting, but UW is No. 8 in the nation for net punting.
"When it comes to punting your goals have to be statistics," DeBauche said. "Your goal has to be over 40 yards, over four-second hang time and it happens that some punters have great averages but the net punt average isn't so great because the teams are able to return it…If I can punt it far and still not have a return…that's the ultimate goal is to be able to punt it like the punt against Arizona…a 57-yarder with no return. If I could do that every time I'd be tickled pink."
That 57-yarder, DeBauche's longest of the year, was downed at the Arizona 14.
"It would have been the perfect punt if it would have went out at the one-yard line," DeBauche said.
DeBauche has been working towards that perfect punt since he began playing flag football in first grade.
"Punting was just always something I had a knack for," he said. "It was something I would go and do in my yard. I actually remember trying to punt it over the power lines and the telephone lines in my yard…
"I don't know what I was doing, I just remember doing that. Instead of kicking it off the ground like a field goal, I would try to make a field goal with a punt."
DeBauche won the starting punter's job at Bay Port High School in Green Bay, Wis., as a sophomore and learned the nuances of punting from Steve Johnson, a Bay Port assistant coach at the time who punted for Iowa State.
"He really showed me just little technique things that would really help out, showed me drills that would help out to improve (me) as a punter," DeBauche said. "I guess I just built from what he showed me."
DeBauche would also end up playing receiver and quarterback during his prep career but punting was what drew Wisconsin's attention and propelled him into a competition for the Badgers' starting spot in his true freshman season. Veteran R.J. Morse won the position last year and enjoyed a much improved junior campaign, averaging 40.7 yards per punt, including five of 50 or more yards.
Meanwhile, DeBauche was taking full advantage of his redshirt year. He struggled with consistency in his first fall camp and first season but made a few small mechanical adjustments and progressed through a year of workouts, eventually winning the punting job just before the 2004 season opener.
"It's your freshman year, the expectations are high," Murphy said of the inconsistency. "There are so many things that go into being a college kicker and a college punter in terms of timing, in terms of operation. When you are a high school punter, a high school kicker, you have time. Now, all of a sudden you get into college and protection is a matter of timing: how fast can you get the ball off. And it changes your footwork a little bit."
DeBauche got the footwork down and in January made a slight adjustment to the way he holds the football prior to his drop. He slid his hand less than an inch further underneath the ball, but noticed a difference.
"(It) gave me a little better control and a little more feel for the ball," he said.
Mostly, though, DeBauche benefited from the year he spent honing his skills on the field and in the film room.
"Just knowing myself as a punter and knowing what I can do and what I can't do," he said. "If I wasn't strong in one area, just working on getting better in that area and try to become an all-around punter and be able to be consistent."
Wisconsin's field position weapon
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