Punter Darren Bennett has no false pretensions about his 2004 season, his first with the Vikings.
"I think I started slow. It was one of those things where we had like eight punts in five games. It was a slow start for me (because of) not getting a lot of reps, but I think we settled in at the end of the season," Bennett told Viking Update when asked to analyze last season. "Our coverage was fantastic. On punt team we were up in the top five in the league in not allowing big returns. I think we ended up as one of the strengths of the team, especially inside the 20, giving our defense a long way to go, so we look to start how we finished last year and keep it following through."
The start to last season – and even Bennett's offseason – were no picnic. First, Bennett was moving away from the San Diego area, a place he had called home (or at least his temporary home away from Australia) for nine NFL seasons.
Besides a new home, new teammates and the debilitating muscular dystrophy suffered by Will, Darren and wife Rosemary's oldest son, Darren also had to cope with the pressure of performing for a new special teams coach who had brought aboard a kicking specialist as well.
All the change added up to a disappointing start to 2004, but the biggest reason for his struggles through the first half of 2004, Bennett says, were because of his lack of repetitions in practice.
For four or five years in San Diego, Bennett never had another punter on the roster during the offseason. For a punter in his mid to late 30s, that might seem like he'd overuse the leg, but he said he liked all the extra work.
"When we have as good of an offense as we do and you have four punts in the preseason, you don't really feel that mentally ready for the start of the year. If I'm short on reps (in the preseason this year), then I'll ask for more," he said. "Last year, because Rusty (Tillman, special teams coordinator) didn't know me and I didn't know him, they're looking at my age and saying, ‘We've got to conserve his energy.'
"For me, I need more reps. I need to get in there and feel those bodies flying around and helmets getting close and hands coming up in front of you. After about 15 or 20 of those, the world starts to slow down in front of you and then you start to feel comfortable. When the world starts flashing past you and it's going warp speed, you're not really comfortable with your technique and you're watching a lot of other stuff happening. You just need a few reps in preseason to be able to have that happen. We didn't punt much last year."
Bennett said coming to a new team and trying to do too much contributed to his slow start. Instead of simply concentrating on punting, he was also trying to help young players with their coverages. "After a while you just have to let them do their job and (you) do your own job," he said.
Another factor that may have contributed to Bennett's season average dipping to 39.2 yards per punt after a career average of 43.8 might have been too much coaching. While specialist Doug Blevins is considered a kicking guru in NFL circles, he might be best used in smaller helpings. His in-depth analysis of the kicking game might have been too much for Aaron Elling, but Bennett learned to survive.
"I don't really believe in coaching every kick. That's why you have 12 kicks in a row in practice so that you can find that groove so that when you get that one chance in a game you're in a groove. If you make adjustments on every punt – I'm a big believer in paralysis by analysis and not overanalyzing stuff," Bennett said. "For me, I like Doug and he's really a great technician. He really stayed away from me most of the time."
Blevins didn't attend the team's spring camps this year.
Last year is over with, and Bennett remains with the Vikings looking to rebound. In recent practices, it was apparent that the leg strength in his 40-year-old body isn't an issue. All he needs to find is consistency.
"I'm a little inconsistent, but I've got plenty of power, which is sort of what I had last year," he said earlier this month. "I feel I'm more solid with my technique this year. Some of the ones I'm mis-hitting, I'm not messing around, but I'm sort of experimenting a little bit. The ones where you really tune in and go for it I'm hitting well at the moment."
Bennett said he was in Australia much of the first quarter of the year and didn't hear any of the fan speculation calling for the Vikings to bring in a new punter. He said if the Vikings brought in a young guy, it wouldn't be the first time he was in a kicking war.
In fact, the Vikings already have a young punter on their roster full of talent in Travis Dorsch. Dorsch averaged 42.5 yards punting for the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe this spring, but Dorsch's potential has never led to enough consistency to find a long-term NFL job.
"At 40 years of age, I haven't got (another) 10 years in the game. Somewhere, we've got to look at developing someone new. …When you get to 38, 39, you know they're looking to someone else for the future," Bennett said of Dorsch.
Bennett went through that in San Diego, where he helped develop punter Mike Scifres, a 2003 fifth-round draft pick of the Chargers. Last year, Scifres had a 43.1-yard average, seventh-best in the league and a 38.4-yard net average, third best in the NFL.
"This is such a good gig. If I'm still strong in my technique and flexible and able to play, then I'm going to play as long as I can or as long as I want to," Bennett said. "When I start to fall off and feel like I'm not contributing to the team and I can't do what the defense needs me to do and put them on a long field, then it's time to walk away from the game."
For Dorsch's part, he says Bennett has been wonderful to work with and that the old-timer has been nothing but helpful. Come training camp, the competition and the NFL's age-old battle to combat age will be on.
Punter Searching For Better Start
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