Pinning down punting particulars

Andy Lee puts his cleats on one foot at a time. But when it comes time to dress his kicking toe, the 49ers' new punter crams his size-11 right foot into a size 9 1/2 shoe. Things may get a little tight in there, but Lee has learned it's the best way to get the most out of his boots, making sure it's his foot and not his shoe that's doing all the kicking. Lee is learning the intricacies of punting at the NFL level, and that has left him the undisputed front-runner at his position this summer.

The Niners say they want to wait and see what happens in training camp, but it's obvious the punter's role is Lee's job to lose this summer. In fact, in reality, it's Lee's job to lose in September or beyond, because - barring any unexpected catastrophe - Lee will be San Francisco's punter when the Niners open the season Sept. 12 against Atlanta.

Training camp? That will only be a time for Lee to hone his skills. The preseason? That will only be a time for him to get game-ready and adjust to the speed of the NFL game.

He already is adjusting to the demands of the NFL game.

"The main differences is they want more hang time here," Lee told SFI. "And get-off time is a little more important here than in college, too. Here, everybody's so fast you have to get the ball off fast."

Lee's strengths - which made him one of the elite punters in college football last year at the University of Pittsburgh - are accuracy, sound mechanics and outstanding directional skills. But he also can put some distance on his boots, averaging 44.1 yards a kick last year as a senior and an outstanding 42.4 on his 244 punts during his four-year college career.

Lee says he has shortened his steps to get the ball off quicker, and that also has allowed him to improve in the other important area needed to succeed in the NFL.

"It's still going out and punting, but I have made a change in my steps," Lee said. "I've shortened them a little bit, which has caused the ball to get a little higher, rather than taking long steps and driving the ball. Shortening my steps has gotten the ball up, so that's really taken care of most of my worries, except for being consistent every time, and that just comes with working. That's the same at any level."

During June minicamp workouts, the wind at 49ers headquarters in Santa Clara kicked up as ferociously as it sometimes gets during the fall at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. That gave Lee an opportunity to work amid the conditions that have doomed many San Francisco punters, but he said that's just one of the occupational hazards of the job and something for which all punters must be prepared.

"Being out there, you can tell that the wind's an issue," Lee said. "It's supposed to be even worse in San Francisco. But wind is wind and punting the ball is punting the ball. Of course, here, with the wind, it's a mental game. But mentally I've never really had a problem. I think mentally I'll be fine.

"You just got to keep your head on straight and know that if you kick a good punt and the wind messes it up, you just can't do anything about it, you just have to let it go and go to the next punt. As long as you're doing your job, I don't think the wind is really going to affect it that much."

Speaking of jobs, Niners coach Dennis Erickson says he hasn't given this one to Lee yet. But Erickson also made an obvious reference to Lee when he said, "The competition at punter is going to be interesting. We're in a lot better shape right now than we were a year ago at this time."

They're in better shape because Lee is on their roster - and No. 1 on the depth chart.

"There's definitely more of a comfort level being around here now," Lee said. "I would say there still are a little nerves to be worked out. But I think that would be normal with anybody. But I'm definitely a lot more loose now, just out there punting and just letting everything flow."

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