True Freshman Punters and You: Partners in Freedom

Submitted by Wonk on July 31st, 2010 at 1:01 AM

Much has been made about the incoming freshman and who will contribute. While there is speculation that freshmen may fill in certain depth gaps/play special teams, there is only one freshman guarantee on this team: Will Hagerup will be your starting punter on September 4, 2010 (I mean, if we need to punt....). This was made completely crystal clear during the spring game, when the various walk-on punters varied between punting the football 20 yards to the right sideline and 20 yards to the left sideline. Our only feasible punter during the spring game was Tate Forcier, and while the fake punt opportunities would be delicious, it's not gonna happen, nor should it.

So with Hagerup fresh out of high school, I wanted to do some investigating to see how prolific true freshman punters were in the NCAA, and how they generally fared. Below, you will find the breakdown from 2006 through 2009, the active years of Zoltan. In fact, at the bottom of each year is Zoltan's stats from that particular year for comparison. His numbers have NO BEARING on the averages for each year. It's just so you can get an idea of what a good punter's stats look like.

Caveat: I only used punting average. There are many metrics to look at for punters, but average is probably the most basic without driving me completely insane digging around. So take this with a grain of salt, in that the numbers don't reflect the special teams tacklers surrounding these fine young men. RR indicates Rivals Rankings...I used this because I subscribe to Rivals and not Scout.


2006 Name Rank Team AVG Stars RR
  Kyle Loomis 42 Oregon State 41.26 2 5.4
  John Stec 77 Akron 38.63 NR NR
  Jake Brownell 79 Temple 38.51 NR NR
  P.J. Fitzgerald 85 Alabama 38.18 NR NR
  Brett Upson 94 Vanderbilt 37.4 2 5.2
  Kyle Yelton 97 Illinois 36.74 2 5.1
  Alonso Rojas 99 Bowling Green 35.64 2 5
  Chris Cook 100 FIU 35.35 2 NR
  Zoltan Mesko 38 Michigan 41.58 3 5.5
  Averages: 84.13   37.71 2 5.18


2007 Name Rank Team AVG Stars RR
  Ryan Long 33 Syracuse 41.86 ?? ??
  Travis Baltz 58 Maryland 40.91 2 4.9
  Blake Clingan 61 UCF 40.75 2 5.4
  Aaron Bates 75 Michigan State 39.74 2 5
  Derek Epperson 86 Baylor 39.08 2 5.2
  Spencer Ortego 91 La-Laff 38.88 NR NR
  Jeff Wathne 97 Temple 38.18 NR NR
  Anthony Santella 100 Illinois 37.66 NR NR
  Zoltan Mesko 53 Michigan 41.09 3 5.5
  Averages: 75.13   39.63 2 5.13


2008 Name Rank Team AVG Stars RR
  Kyle Hughes 22 New Mexico State 42.67 NR NR
  Brad Nortman 32 Wisconsin 41.83 3 5.5
  Matt Rinehart 64 Kent State 39.98 2 5.1
  Ryan Quigley 71 Boston College 39.56 2 5.3
  Brian Stahovich 73 San Diego St. 39.54 2 5.4
  Peter Fardon 78 Buffalo 39.09 NR NR
  Jimmy Howell 81 UVA 38.97 2 5.4
  Bill Claus 84 Toledo 38.82 NR NR
  Kase Whitehead 85 Marshall 38.7 2 5
  Kyle Martens 87 Rice 38.5 2 5.1
  Austin McCoy 94 Wyoming 37.94 2 4.9
  Zoltan Mesko 20 Michigan 42.95 3 5.5
  Averages: 70.09   39.6 2.13 5.21


2009 Name Rank Team AVG Stars RR
  Tyler Campbell 12 Ole Miss 43.95 2 5.5
  Ryan Erxleben 56 Texas Tech 40.84 NR NR
  Jackson Rice 64 Oregon 40.52 2 5.3
  Will Atterberry 82 N. Texas 38.96 2 5.2
  Dylan Breeding 84 Arkansas 38.67 NR NR
  Peter Boehme 88 So. Miss 38.48 NR NR
  Zoltan Mesko 8 Michigan 44.46 3 5.5
  Averages: 64.33   40.24 2 5.33


What to make of all of this:

Well, generally it seems that freshman punters are getting better. From 2006 to 2009, true freshman punters were kicking the ball almost an extra 3 yards per kick, which isn't bad (think an extra 18-20 yards of field position per game. That's more than enough to take a team out of FG range). The increase in ranking averages seems to back this up. I would imagine this has to do with several factors (some of them being completely chaos related). High school programs are getting more sophisticated with special teams, punters may actually punt their whole high school career, advances in strength training and conditioning, and the shift to rugby punting in many programs all probably play into these numbers.


There also seems to be a general reluctance (duh) towards using true freshman punters:

  • In 2006 there were 100 total punters with at least 3.6 punts per game, and only 8 were true freshman (8% of punters in FBS).
  • In 2007 that number was 8 again (8% of punters in FBS).
  • In 2008 there were 98 punters, and 11 were true freshman (11% of punters in FBS...a bumper crop!).
  • In 2009 there were 98 punters, and 6 were true freshman (6% of punters in FBS).


The total averages for all of the years:

  • Average Rank: 73.42
  • Average Punting Average: 39.30 yards (editors note: yecch)
  • Average Rivals Rating (for those who were actually rated): 5.21


Zoltan is awesome. More awesome than the numbers truly reflect. But he was super awesome last year. I mean...seriously.


What About Will?

Here is what Rivals has to say about young master Hagerup:

  • 3 stars
  • 5.5 rating
  • #3 kicker in the nation (their #1 true punter)
  • 6'4"
  • 215 lbs

The only two players who come close to this level of guru love are Wisconsin's Brad Nortman (who fared quite well in 2008) and, well, Zoltan. This isn't enough brick and mortar to build a castle, but it isn't bad.

Hagerup also averaged 44.5 yards per punt during his senior year, which would place him smack dab at the top of each of the lists above, and above Zoltan in certain years. Now this certainly does not factor in the added level of competition in the form of better blockers/returners, but again, it's a good place to be.

This number also completely blows the averages for true freshman punters out of the water, but if Hagerup doesn't come in and start tearing through those averages that were being dragged down by the likes of the walk on punters from North Texas, Buffalo, and Wyoming...we're in some trouble.


Final Conclusions:

Hagerup is going to be a fine punter during his freshman year. Unless he forgets which foot he uses to punt or what a football looks like, he will be fine. Reports have already been leaking out of Newsterbaan about him booming punts during off-season workouts that looked very Zoltanish. 

His physicality is more than promising, his guru hype matches that of the best true freshman punter of the past 4 seasons, and his high school averages put him at the top of any of the past 4 classes. 

So while we may lose something by not having Zoltan, a complete landslide this will not be. His supporting cast will generally be the same, and they proved themselves quite efficient at long snapping, blocking, and punt coverage duties last year. Nerves or other intangibles may cause him to butterfinger a snap into oblivion, or shank a punt into the blades of a Big Fogg fan, but I don't think there's any reason to expect a poor, or even "average" season for our new true freshman punter. In fact, he'd have to drop 5.2 yards per kick average between his senior year in HS and his freshman year in college to approach average for a freshman punter. That's astronomical, and I don't see it happening. "Above average" to "All Glory to Zoltan Acolyte Hagerup!" should be your expectations this coming year.

Now we just need to figure out how to get the student section to make H's with their hands on 4th downs...


Six Zero

July 31st, 2010 at 10:07 AM ^

Nice job of finding filling us in with some concrete information on a niche topic.

We were a bit spoiled with the punting the last two years, one of the few things we were spoiled with.  Imagine how much worse the frustration of the last two years might have been if Zoltan wasn't there launching balls into hyperspace


July 31st, 2010 at 6:54 AM ^

The only problem I can foresee is a few "freshmen mistakes" under duress.  Stereotypically, "freshman mistakes" are usually chalked up to a "lack of poise," but are more than likely part of the learning curve concerning "game speed," which is a lot faster in major college ball than in HS.  Once that adjustment is made, though, I really think he will be fine.

Hopefully, any "freshman mistakes" happen at times when they don't cost the team a game.  Everybody will get to laugh at him in the locker room afterwards, the coaches will have something to coach him up about, and I can't imagine him making any of them twice.


July 31st, 2010 at 8:44 AM ^

Our kicking game is the least discussed part of our team and I am pretty scared by the lack of experience. We just don't know what we are going to get in game situations. I think our field goal unit may cost us a game during the year, but thanks to your diary, I am feeling a lot better about our punting.


July 31st, 2010 at 8:57 AM ^

I'm much more worried about our FG/PAT kicking. I think that's the part of our ST play that is most likely to contribute mightily to a loss. Aside from fumbling punts ourselves, that is.

Dallas Wolverine

July 31st, 2010 at 9:06 AM ^

but new punters/ kickers will always scare the shit out of me. I sure hope they dont cost us a game this year. It sure sounds like Will is going to be a great one for M. Who are the kickers?


July 31st, 2010 at 9:52 AM ^

The most meaningful stat here is Hagerup's 44.5 yd average in his senior year. The guy has a boot! While there may be some buried insights in your statistical breakdown, they are not immediately obvious. When the top guys' averages are about 4 yards higher than the middle-of-the-pack guys, we can't make much of the conclusions (issues of punting on a shorter field, etc.). You did point out that there are all kinds of statistics for punters and I don't blame you for not combing through all of those. But, the fact that Hagerup has a huge leg is very encouraging. As long as he can handle the snaps and we have a competent special-teams line, it seems we should be in good shape for the next few years.


July 31st, 2010 at 10:58 AM ^

I'm also interested in how field goal kicking will turn out, but I think that is way more nuanced and specialized than punting, and thus harder to predict.

With kicking, you have to hit a target that is only 18.5 feet wide, from a distance of 20 to 50 yards, from either side of the field, using different techniques, levels of power, and angles for each situation. The snap itself is tricky and fraught with danger in the form of too many moving parts. There's the center, who snaps it low to a man who is kneeling, who has to catch it with just his hands. He'll need to spin the football correctly, place it in the correct spot, and get his hands clear all while the kicker is running and winding up, and 11 monsters are crashing in to try and take off his head. That's a lot of pressure. This requires mental toughness, finesse, physicality, angle, force, and the ability to vary between techniques. 

Punting, with the exception of trying to pin a team deep, comes down to the same general form and technique, no matter where you stand on the field. Blocks are rare, and when you're 6 foot 4, snaps over the head are less of a threat. There are no more moving parts than any other play. Angle and force are the tricks of the trade. The tricky situations come pinned deep, or when the punt block defense is set to "kill," but these are situations that can be practiced effectively, because it just comes down to cadence. Angle and force remain the same.

So it's probably harder to predict success for a kicker. Whereas level of competition doesn't affect a punter too much in high school (punts are punts are punts), the speed of the game, and the size of the defense, along with being much closer to the men trying to kill you, does affect the place kicking game between HS and College. Just trying to get the ball up and over men who are taller, faster, stronger and better jumpers than high schoolers is difficult enough. Added to this, most high schools utilize a field goal that is 23 feet across, vs. 18.5 feet across in college and the pros. 

The one interesting wrinkle in all of this: the speculation that if Gibbons and Meram can't get the place kicking duties down, that Hagerup may be the man to pull double duty. He's a darn good place kicker, and two-way players aren't unheard of (Louie Sakoda of Utah a notable example). If it's wise to split his practice time, I don't know. I would also find it hard to believe that with two scholarship kickers and one serviceable walk on, they won't have a viable option at PK duty.


July 31st, 2010 at 11:02 AM ^

My favorite thing about the stats I found is:



Kyle Yelton 97 Illinois




Anthony Santella 100 Illinois 37.66


Whoops. I'm not sure what happened here, but ouch for Illini special teams. And while the sample size is small, we can determine that using a true freshman punter for two years in a row is not a good thing.

Section 1

July 31st, 2010 at 1:13 PM ^

And I am indeed less concerned about Will Hagerup, than Brendan Gibbons.  Still, there is this re: Hagerup  -- we better have some seriously big, nasty, pipe-hittin' brothers out there to protect Hagerup.  Because, as indicated, the option after any injury to Hagerup is.... Tate.


July 31st, 2010 at 6:34 PM ^

The new luxury boxes will keep sound in but will likely reduce punting distances. Rumor has it that Dollar Bill installed giant fans that will blow in Michigan's favor at key kicking moments.


August 1st, 2010 at 8:27 PM ^

My brother happens to be on one of your above stated lists.  Quick background.  He averaged 49.5 punts per game his senior year in HS.  He went in as a true freshman and took the position from a 2 year starter.  I can tell you his freshman year, as stated above, his average was about 9.52 yard/punt lower than his senior year avg..  This past year, as a sophomore, he ended up 1st team all conference.  My point... it actually is a big jump from HS to college for punters.  It takes time.  1st off... speed of the game is much faster.  He was told how fast they want him to get off punts and it's night and day from HS.  In HS, you typically did not have really anyone rushing you.  In college.. everyone is trying to make a name for themselves and get on the field.  His coverage team wasn't the greatest his freshman year, so much as they changed the up man a few times, just to protect him a litle longer.  Also, I remember his first, "big" away game, it was a change for him.  In front of more fans than he ever played and the crowd was into it.  He had one blocked... then another.  Got in his head a bit.  He went from playing every down in HS, offense, defense, special teams, to playing 4-6 plays as a freshman, only punting.  You get a bit rusty, standing there on the sidelines.  

I guess my point is/was.  A. It was cool to see my little brother on Mgoblog.  And B.  Expect Will to NOT have a lights out year.  As all true freshman go... it's a change and it takes time.  I have no doubt he'll be fine, but let's not all freak out the 1st time he's on the road and he shanks one off the outside of his foot, flying 12 yards out of bounds.  It happens... be patient.  Let him become a great punter.  My guess is he will NOT average 44.5 yards in college his freshman year.  If he does... the kid is a stud.  Expect around 38/punt.  But as long as the coverage team holds, he gets good hang time, and they protect him... all will be good.  Sometimes distance really isn't as important of a stat.  I'd rather have great hangtime and 38 yards, forcing a fair catch and no return, than a 45 yard line drive punt, and a 30 yard return.  It's ALL about NET yards!  DON'T let them return!  If Will does that... we'll be in great shape!   


August 2nd, 2010 at 5:28 PM ^

Seems to me that in rating a punting prospect, the speed at which a punter gets the ball off his foot is something that gets considered.

While I don't expect him to be Zoltan 2: Electric Boogaloo right off the bat, he was also rated with Zoltan and Brad Nortmann as the only 5.5s on the list.

Also, optimism is much more fun than having another thing to worry about for 2010.