At 39, Aussie Punter Still Has It

At 39 years old and with nine years of experience in the NFL, punter Darren Bennett should provide consistency that was lacking last season at the position. His background is an interesting one.

Last year the Vikings drafted Eddie Johnson as their new punter, and he showed great potential in spring camps. However, with "potential" tag comes the necessity to improve, and Johnson's boom or bust punts turned more of the latter.

This year in spring camps, the Vikings have another punter competing with Johnson, but the competitor is hardly a rookie. Thirty-nine-year old Darren Bennett is showing his leg still has the strength to match Johnson's best, but Bennett is doing it with consistency, which is what ultimately led to Johnson's demotion at the end of the 2004 season.

Despite Bennett coming in as the obvious choice to win the starting job this season, he said he and Johnson worked on their relationship right from the beginning.

"We sat down and had a chat very early on. I said to Eddie, ‘Whatever happens, happens.' I wanted him to learn from me, and I feed off his enthusiasm for the game because it's new," Bennett said. "All these young guys running around, that's what keeps me going.

"Hitting a good spiral is just as good now as it was 10 years ago. I have a lot of fun doing it and get to play with some really terrific young athletes."

Bennett played 12 seasons of Australian Rules Football with Melbourne and Perth before coming to the United States for his honeymoon in 1994. He had two tickets to a long-kicking competition in Los Angeles and negotiated a workout with the San Diego Chargers.

Just like that, his honeymoon turned into a moneymaker.

The money comparison between Australian Rules Football and the NFL? "Not even close," Bennett said. "The guys are making better money than when I retired, but the average wage was 50 grand when I retired — Australian dollars, that's $35,000 U.S."

On March 19, the Vikings signed Bennett for two years and $1.9 million.

Just as the money doesn't compare, the physical techniques are also different between Australian Rules and American football.

"We hit a pooch punt in this game that we use in Aussie rules every kick, which seems like a kickoff kick here. The main spiral kick we learn as a young kid, but we don't use it much in the (Australian) game, just if we're kicking more accurately to get it to a spot. It takes too long to get there with hang time."

Hang time combined with distance is a punter's dream in the NFL, and new Vikings kicking consultant Doug Blevins knew what Bennett possessed 10 years ago when he saw him kick in the World League. A decade later, Blevins is still impressed.

"Darren has an incredibly, incredibly fast leg for a punter," Blevins said "He brings experience and he's mentally tough. He's always been there and done that. He loves the game. He has a great work ethic. He brings a lot of important elements to the team and to the game."

Bennett's style might be a little more unconventional — "some would say uncoachable," he joked — but having Blevins as an adaptable, experienced coach won't hurt.

Still, the onus is on Bennett to keep his 39-year-old body in shape … or at least get his kicking muscles ready by the time training camp opens. At the end of a developmental camp practice last week, Bennett was out on the field running sprints with men young enough to be his children.

"As you can see, I'm huffing and puffing after doing some sprints," Bennett said. "My job is flexibility and consistency. I don't need to be running 100-yard sprints, but I'll do it … not that I have fun doing it.

"I do a lot of bike riding, swimming, try to keep the core strong — lower back and abs. And then as we get from here on, just doing a lot of punting. I don't have to be physically fit, but I have to be fit to punt and I'll be that by training camp."

Come training camp, starting on July 30, he'll be in Mankato with the Vikings, and they hope he can provide the consistency that was lacking the last few years. Despite "about four or five teams" that were looking to hire Bennett, the chance to win with the Vikings and family life and schools were a major issue in his decision, he said. He has two boys, ages 6 and 7, and a wife, and he felt the Twin Cities offered some good school districts. The family will move to Minnesota after they finished school in California on June 18.

Less than two months later during the preseason, Bennett and his 39-year-old leg will be showing fans in the Metrodome that an old Australian Rules Football player can convert to American rules and provide consistency.

* Cornerback Eric Kelly was not at Monday's practice after skipping out last Wednesday and Thursday. Kelly wasn't happy about Rushen Jones receiving some reps in front of him last Tuesday, according to head coach Mike Tice. Kelly appears to be looking for his release, but the Vikings may wait until the end of the week to make a decision on Kelly's future.
* Despite Kelly's absence, rookie Deandre' Eiland, a versatile defensive back, remained at safety. Eiland started the month at cornerback but was moved to safety because of the Vikings' depth at corner.
* Horace Willis, who returned to practice last week after completing his spring in NFL Europe, received Kelly's reps with the second team base defense with Rhett Nelson on the left side.
* Wide receiver Ben Nelson was at practice for the first time since completing his season in NFL Europe.
* Guard David Dixon, cornerback Ken Irvin and linebacker Chris Claiborne were the veterans who weren't at practice Monday, all for personal reasons. Adam Haayer worked at Dixon's right guard spot with the first team.
* Wide receiver Kelly Campbell returned to practice after missing two days last week due to illness.
* Cornerback Brian Williams had an interception.
* Linebacker Mike Nattiel sprained his ankle during special teams drills.
* Tight end Steve Farmer continued to ride a stationary bike on the sidelines while rehabilitating his knee.
* Cornerback Jermaine Mays, a wide receiver with the University of Minnesota in college, made the transition to cornerback last year and was sent to NFL Europe this spring, where he had a solid season and his team won the World Bowl on Saturday. He could be at practice as soon as tomorrow, according to one Vikings source.
* Like Dixon two weeks ago, quarterback Daunte Culpepper took his stab at returning punts for fun in practice. Culpepper's only return attempt had the ball sailing over his head and off the fingertips of his outstretched hands.
* Culpepper fumbled a ball in Monday's practice, but that hasn't been close to a regular occurrence at practices this spring like it was during the 2002 season. In this instance, a defensive lineman slapped at the ball.
* Linebacker Keith Newman was getting some practice time with the first team defense on the strong side.
* Defensive lineman Darrion Scott attended his first developmental camp practice on Monday after finishing school at Ohio State. The last time he practiced with the Vikings was during the May 7-9 minicamps. He was the only rookie this year to be forced to consistently miss the past two weeks of practice because of his school still being in session.

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