NFL Europe an elixir for Sander

Of the 15 players the Green Bay Packers allocated to play in NFL Europe this spring, only one has a realistic chance of contributing to the team during the 2005 NFL regular season. Punter B.J. Sander is the guy. Sander, who had a horrific start to his pro career during training camp last season, has been punting for the Hamburg Sea Devils the past seven weeks in the NFL's minor league.

The time spent overseas should help him regain confidence that he had when the Packers selected him in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft.

"He's done very, very well," said Packers special teams coach John Bonamego. "I'm pleased with what I've seen from him so far. He still has to work on some things. At least he's getting out there in game situations."

Through seven games of the 10-game season, Sander is one of the top punters of the six-team league with an average of 41.4 yards on 19 punts (38.2-yard net avg.). He has one touchback and has placed eight punts inside the 20 yard line. His longest punt of the season is 65 yards, and he hasn't had any punts blocked. Only the Rhein Fire's Travis Dorsch, who was allocated to NFL Europe by the Minnesota Vikings, has a better gross average at 42.4 yards. Dorsch was with the Packers last spring before getting released in late July.

When Sander, who took his wife, Beth, with him, returns to Green Bay this summer, he'll have plenty of competition for the Packers punting job. Green Bay, this off-season, signed free agent Brooks Barnard and rookie free agent Bryce Benekos. Both are expected to give Sander a good challenge.

It also is possible that the Packers will pursue Carolina punter Todd Sauerbrun after June 1. But Sauerbrun, one of the NFL's top punters, was arrested for drunken driving in December and implicated in a steroid investigation this off-season.

"Every position is under competition here, and that's the way it should be," Bonamego said. " (Sander) knows that and needs to prepare for that. That's part of the reason he's over there, to get himself ready to have a great camp."

Sander finished with a shaky 36.0-yard average during the preseason last year, including a five-yard shank in the exhibition finale at Tennessee. That woeful performance prompted then general manager and coach Mike Sherman to sign veteran Bryan Barker. Sherman kept Sander on the roster, though, he was not active for any game, but Barker has not been re-signed this off-season.

The Packers are hoping that Sander will regain the form he had while at Ohio State when he won the Ray Guy Award for the nation's top punter in 2003. If he still struggles, Benekos or Barnard will get every opportunity to win the job. The competition between the three officially begins when training camp opens in late July, though, there is a chance that Sander may return for part of the team's June 1-9 mini-camp, if Hamburg does not advance to the June 11 World Bowl.

For Sander, however, it will be his job to lose in camp. Though he didn't launch one punt last year, he studied under Barker and got acclimated to an NFL regular season. The game experience he is receiving in NFL Europe has been invaluable, he says.

"When I come back, I'm hoping to step right in and win back the job," Sander said. "I'm definitely camp ready."

Bonamego reviews film after each of Sander's games in Europe, and communicates often via e-mail. He said he has noticed Sander mature in ways during games that are impossible to teach or practice.

"He had one game last week where he told me he didn't get to punt until the second half," Bonamego explained. "That's part of the mental discipline that a specialist has to have. You've got to be ready to go. You've got to be ready to go all game long, but you don't know when your opportunities are going to come. Sometimes you five or six chances. Sometimes you only have one or two."

In a league where teams discard kicking specialists like yesterday's newspaper if they're not performing well, Sander is getting a rare second chance with the Packers. The experience he is receiving this spring in NFL Europe could turn out to be the key to his future in the NFL.

Note: FOX-TV begins its 10th season of NFL Europe League coverage on Sunday with the national telecast of the Berlin-Hamburg contest from Hamburg, Germany. Curt Menefee and Brian Baldinger will make the call at noon (CT) from the AOL Arena.
FOX will televise one game in each of the final three weeks of the regular season, followed by coverage of World Bowl XIII on Saturday, June 11 from Düsseldorf, Germany, home of the Rhein Fire.

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