He is an integral part of the Badgers' lineup because, "if you look at the stats, my name's on the rushing yards now," DeBauche said.
Yes it is. Ken DeBauche: 1 attempt, -4 yards.
That is the result of the safety DeBauche took on the final play of the Badgers' 14-5 win at North Carolina Saturday night. Facing fourth down from the UW 4, DeBauche ran the final moments off the clock and stepped out of bounds in the end zone to close the curtain on likely the best game of his young career.
"A lot of the defensive guys have been heckling me because that put two more points on the board," DeBauche said. The Badgers practice the "take a safety" play every Thursday. "They asked me why I didn't throw it. And I told them looking back I could have, but that's not what we practiced."
Truth be told, DeBauche's defensive teammates have every reason to thank him for helping keep points off the board. His play is crucial in the field position battle that can quietly control the outcome of a game. With several excellent punt returners on UW's remaining schedule, beginning this Saturday with Michigan's Steve Breaston, DeBauche will assume a vital role.
"I always thought (Kevin) Stemke was special and I think Kenny is getting closer," UW head coach Barry Alvarez said. Stemke, the Badgers' punter from 1997-2000, won the inaugural Ray Guy award his senior year as the nation's best punter.
"He is extremely confident and just composed," Alvarez said of DeBauche. "I like the way he competes."
DeBauche performed brilliantly in Chapel Hill, earning Big Ten Special Teams Player of the Week acclaim. He boomed two punts more than 50 yards, pinned the Tar Heels inside the 20 four times and, on his seven punts in that game, averaged 46.7 yards per punt.
Late in the third quarter, with UW backed up to its 3, DeBauche stood deep in the Badgers' end zone awaiting the snap. UNC trailed just 7-3 and had every reason to expect great field position. DeBauche, though, launched a 54-yard punt that drove returner Brandon Tate back to UNC's 43-yard line. Tate picked up just four yards on the return and UNC went three-and-out and punted it right back to the Badgers.
"North Carolina maybe thought that they'd have a little momentum swing, they'd be on our side of the 50," DeBauche said. "But to be able to get them pinned back on their side of the 50 is a big deal. I think that was my best punt."
In the fourth quarter, DeBauche twice gave UNC's struggling offense a 90-yard field to play with. Early in the period, reserve safety Zach Hampton, a sprinter on UW's punt team, tackled Tate at the UNC 10 for a loss of three after a 48-yard DeBauche boot. Later in the quarter, DeBauche had a 34-yarder downed at the 10.
"We're punting from midfield and he drops four of them inside the 20, and a couple of them inside the 10," Alvarez said. "So that's very valuable in a game like that. It's very unlikely they're going to take the ball 90 yards."
DeBauche was a very good punter as a redshirt freshman last season. He pinned 17 of 57 punts inside the 20 and coerced 12 fair catches.
This season, however, he is exhibiting greater leg strength and is also more comfortable with directional kicking—at times aiming his punts toward a sideline to give the coverage team a narrower area to converge on.
Last season, DeBauche was sixth in the Big Ten with a 41.8 yards per punt average. As good as his performance at UNC was last week, it actually lowered his per-punt average this season to 47.2 yards—the best mark in the conference.
A year ago, six of DeBauche's 57 punts traveled 50 or more yards. This year, four of his 10 attempts have reached that distance.
For punters, distance must be attuned with hang time. A 50-yarder is not worth much if it beats the coverage to the returner and is taken back for a touchdown.
"If you give your coverage unit four seconds of hang time they'll have a good chance of… pinning the returner back without giving him a chance to return the ball," DeBauche said. "But if I'm punting the ball 50-plus yards, and with four seconds of hang time, that might be out-kicking the coverage, so there's a balance in there."
So far this season, DeBauche is averaging 4.1 seconds hang time, and UW has allowed 80 yards on seven returns, giving DeBauche an impressive 39.2 net yards per punt average. He netted 37.8 last season.
It helps to have an idea where the punt will go and to have good coverage people backing him up. DeBauche's 48-yard fourth quarter punt against UNC only had 3.8 seconds hang time, but it was well angled toward the sideline, allowing Hampton to take a direct route to the returner and drill him for that three-yard loss.
Directional punting is a tough skill to master, but it comes naturally to DeBauche now.
"I think to be able to square yourself to your target is a difficult thing to do while still staying within the protection and staying within the time to get the punt off," he said.
The distance on DeBauche's punts is not his only impressive display of strength. UW's kickers and punters take part in the same strength program as the rest of the team. Last spring, DeBauche set a school record for punters with a 275-pound clean.
"We do all the same lifts, all the same conditioning," DeBauche said. "Even though it's not going to exactly carry over onto the field for us. It's good being there with the rest of the team, working hard, and doing everything the same as they are to reach our goals."