Originally created 10/20/06

Getting a leg up



It is arguably the most unique job description in all of sports. No other position in any game has the primary objective of surrendering to the opposition.

Perhaps for that reason alone, punting has developed a negative reputation among players and fans who would prefer never to see the position utilized. The American Heritage Dictionary even cites an informal definition of punt as "to give up."

The Greater Augusta Sports Council has made it its mission to try to alter the perception of punters. Outside of Tennessee's kicking Colquitt family, no other entity has devoted more attention to the art of booting a dropped ball. In a sport that refuses to recognize its most renowned practitioner of punting alongside other position players as a Hall of Famer, the sports council continues its quest to bestow honor on the breed.

It started in 2000 when the first Ray Guy Award was given to the nation's top collegiate punter. Now the sports council will try to spread the love down to the lower level with the presentation of the GASC High School Punter of the Year Award. The award for the area's top punter will be announced and presented at the same annual sports gala where the Guy award is presented.

"We wanted to create something a little more local," said Randy DuTeau, events director of the sports council. "These kids are hungry, too. You're always going to hear about the running backs and the quarterbacks and all those glamour positions.

Hopefully we're adding something new to the equation. As the center of punting for college, if you will, hopefully we can establish the same for the high schools."

START IT UP

The concept certainly has the endorsement of the area's most famous punter - Thomson's Ray Guy.

"Anything that we can do as far as special teams is concerned, that's great," Guy said. "Let's give everybody the opportunity to be a part of something.

Hopefully this is the start of something good."

The sports council has been pondering the idea for more than a year.

Executive director Tammy Stout had discussed the idea with Guy, the namesake for the collegiate award that has joined the hierarchy of major college honors in rapid succession with a live presentation on ESPN.

The implementation of the Guy award has proved to be a colossal hit. The effect was two-pronged, as the national TV presentation not only draws the spotlight to a deserving collegian but also reminds everyone that Guy was arguably the greatest pure punter in the history of football. With that kind of immortal recognition, who needs the Hall of Fame?

Guy appreciates the impact of the award since it was first presented six years ago.

"After that first year I ran into a lot of college players and coaches and SIDs (sports information directors) from across the country and they told me how after that first year the work ethics of their punters changed," Guy said. "That's good. It will be the same with these kids, I guarantee you. After the word gets out after the first year, kids will see it and say 'Hey, I can kick better than him.' Just being competitive that young is what it's all about."

Punting is certainly a serious competitive aspect of the game and every bit as important as offense and defense, even if it's not as celebrated. It was serious enough that a backup punter at Northern Colorado has been accused of stabbing the starter in his kicking leg in a desperate attempt to move up the depth chart. On Thursday, prosecutors filed a charge of attempted first-degree murder against the player.

The Greater Augusta Sports Council prefers to promote a healthier respect for the position. The award emphasizes the strategic aspects of punting. It will use the same selection committee and statistical criteria as it does for the collegiate award - total punting yardage, net average, return average, percentage not returned and punts downed or kicked out of bounds inside the 20-yard line.

ADDED INCENTIVE

Those criteria certainly appeal to the strengths of a punter such as Evans junior Kevin Millward, who last year averaged around 40 yards on 44 punts, of which only 10 were returned and eight of them for fewer than 5 yards. Already being recruited by every team in the Southeastern Conference as well as Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, Millward hopes to add the award to his resume.

"It would be a good building block for hopefully what's to come," Millward said. "I'd be honored if I was the first guy to get that award."

Millward, who will turn 17 on Monday, was 12 when he won the national Punt, Pass & Kick competition in Nashville, Tenn., at the Titans-Steelers playoff game in January 2002. One of the youngest in his age bracket, a poor punt actually hurt his cumulative distance standing before his final kickoff pushed him into first place by 3 feet.

As the winner he was an honorary guest at the Augusta sports gala where the Guy award was presented, giving him his first of several chances to meet Guy and enhance his motivation to become a better punter.

LOCAL BEGINNING

With the region of eligible schools confined initially to Richmond and Columbia counties as well as Aiken County, the sports council might have undershot its start-up goals. With the limited exposure and punter pool, only three schools have submitted nominations so far - Evans (Millward), Westside (Sanders Commings) and Augusta Christian (Josh Whitaker). Sadly, the first-year parameters don't even extend to the area county (McDuffie) that produced Guy and fellow NFL punter Chris Mohr.

To drum up more interest, the sports council will try to contact other area schools with leading punters to notify them again of the opportunity.

The deadline for nominating a punter was extended until the end of the regular season on Nov. 13. The whole point is to try get the award some legs and gain traction before ultimately expanding its reach statewide.

"As a first-year project there are bound to be glitches, so what we're trying to do is get it established and create an awareness and then we can go to further points out," DuTeau said. "Once we actually hand this award to somebody, that's when it becomes valid."

Punting is not typically held in the highest esteem at the high school level. Schools not blessed with a natural punter generally poll the roster to find anyone capable of taking the long snap and getting the ball away as fast and as far as he can.

Without a kicker capable of controlling his aim or trajectory, teams often will completely forgo the idea of trying to pin the opposition deep and elect to simply go for it on fourth down fearing a bad punt more than a bad offensive play.

Evans coach Marty Jackson appreciates the value of Millward, who has a knack for high hang times that decrease the likelihood of a return.

"With a weapon like that we're going to punt it and play defense," Jackson said. "He's been a real blessing. When you can punt and make somebody drive the distance, that's a plus."

That's the kind of thinking the sports council hopes to foster with this award.

"The punting position is almost an afterthought in some regard," DuTeau said. "But when you have a guy like Ray Guy who, according to (former NFL coach) John Madden, could win games as a punter, that's unique and changes the face of the game. With the national exposure of the Ray Guy Award, people realize how legitimate that position was.

"Perhaps through this and the local exposure, maybe we can be at the vanguard and our schools can start looking at punting as legitimate, too. Over time, maybe our coaches will look at it as less of an afterthought and more of a strategic position. That's one thing Ray Guy is really keen on and perhaps we can kick-start that whole process."

CATCHING ON

As it stands, punting can still be a lonely skill on a football team. Even though Millward is the starting quarterback at Evans as well, he admits that he still gets teased for being "just good at punting." But since his foot, more than his arm, is his likely ticket to a college scholarship, Millward doesn't complain.

His teammates and fans certainly appreciate his talent, which they got an immediate glimpse of in an auspicious debut as a freshman. In the team's final home game of the season against Wayne County, he was forced into action when the regular punter, Ryan Crislite, was injured. A nervous Millward came in and boomed a punt about 48 yards that pinned the opposition inside the 10.

"When people watch me punt they sometimes say, 'Dang, you're good,' " he said. "You can tell they think punting is actually meaningful now. I have a couple of younger kids who've heard of me that I give lessons to."

That's something Guy, who works with high school kids at his own camps, likes to hear and why he thinks the local punting award will have a beneficial impact.

The sports council would like to see this award be as well received as its collegiate model.

"Maybe one of these kids will get really inspired, go to college and all of the sudden be on the Ray Guy watch list," DuTeau said. "It would be neat if through this award something like that happened."

When it comes to promoting punting, the sports council can never be accused of surrendering.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

THE AWARD


The Greater Augusta Sports Council will give a new award to recognize the area's top high school punter.


The punter who exhibits skills in a variety of areas within the position will earn the award. Among the areas of consideration will be the following:


- Number of punts


- Net average


- Total yardage


- Percentage of punts not returned


- Number of punts downed inside the 20-yard line




TO NOMINATE


Coaches must submit a nomination form to the Greater Augusta Sports Council by Nov. 13. The winner will be announced at the sports council's annual gala in January 2007. For additional information, contact Randy DuTeau at (706) 722-8326.