Horse sense helps give punter a leg up

  • Follow Scott Michaux

Any way you look at it, the punting career of Georgia Tech's Durant Brooks traces back to a horse.

Durant Brooks: Georgia Tech punter has the ear of NFL legend Ray Guy, who helped Brooks develop his skills.  Associated Press
Associated Press
Durant Brooks: Georgia Tech punter has the ear of NFL legend Ray Guy, who helped Brooks develop his skills.

There were the hunting and jumping horses Brooks grew up riding on his mother's farm in Warrenton, Ga., which the all-time Atlantic Coast Conference leader in punting average credits for his leg strength.

Then there is the Irish sport horse his mother sold about seven years ago that gave Brooks a foot in the door, so to speak, with the most renowned punter in history.

Ray Guy bought a horse named Moe from LuAnne Durant's Persimmon Hill stock for his daughter to ride. A few months later, Durant asked Guy to assess her son's kicking skills at the annual camp the former NFL legend conducts every year in his hometown of Thomson.

"I was very impressed with him the first time he came to one of our camps," Guy said of Brooks before his junior high school season. "I just walked out on the field and was looking at him and thought, 'Boy, he's got something.' It's what you'd call a natural talent and ability."

Now a senior at Georgia Tech, that natural talent could earn Brooks the national award named after Ray Guy. For the second consecutive season, Brooks is a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award presented by the Greater Augusta Sports Council. Last year he narrowly finished runner-up to two-time winner Daniel Sepulveda of Baylor.

"Last year was exciting and awesome just to be nominated," Brooks said. "This year was motivation to work harder to get back."

Leading the nation in net punting yardage, which factors in punt returns and touchbacks, Brooks is a virtual lock to be one of the three finalists invited to Augusta for the banquet where the winner will be introduced. Guy admits a personal bias that he felt last year as well.

"Buddy, wouldn't this be nice if I could walk up on that stage on ESPN and say the winner of the sixth-annual, or however long its been, is Durant Brooks?" Guy said. "It didn't happen last year, but I did find out later it was very, very close. It would be great to stand up there and call his name this year."

It would be another chapter in the remarkable tale of Thomson-connected punters. Long-time NFL stars Guy and Chris Mohr (who also has helped hone Brooks) both hailed from the region. While Brooks grew up living with his father near Macon and attended Tattnall Square Academy, he spent many of his weekends at his mother's farm in Warrenton.

"They wonder what's in the water around here," Guy said of the region's punting wealth.

With Brooks, it wasn't the water, but the fox-hunting horses he's been riding since he was 7 that built his uncommon leg strength.

"You have to have strong legs to stay on a horse, that's for sure," his mother said.

Guy agrees: "And you've got to have coordination too. That's why he's so natural. He was so rhythmic, so easygoing and relaxed. You've got to have ability and you've got to have rhythm in your whole body. That transposes with the riding. You have to have timing and coordination with the horse, or you'll find yourself on the ground at some time."

Brooks was an all-around athlete in high school, playing wide receiver and defensive back as well as punter. He thought very little of the special teams chore he seemed naturally inclined to do. His mother actually recognized the potential first.

"I kept asking his high school coach, 'Don't you think he can punt on the next level?' " Durant said. "He might have thought I was just a dumb momma or something. That's why I took him to Ray Guy's camp because I thought he could do it."

Guy's celebrity stature was lost on Brooks.

"I didn't know who he was until I got into punting," Brooks said. "My mom told me he lives where she lives and I asked, 'Who's Ray Guy?'"

Pretty soon it was Guy wanting to know more about Brooks. He quickly assessed Brooks and put him on his talent search video.

"I told him he didn't have to do that just because he has the best horse he ever had," his mother said of the jumper she'd sold Guy. "He said, 'LuAnn, the kid's got talent.' "

"The main thing I was impressed with was his work ethics and attention span," Guy said. "He listened to what you were telling him and was accepting to change, always looking for that something a little better."

The hands-on guidance Brooks received from Guy -- in areas of technique and hang time -- opened his eyes to opportunity.

"That's when I saw I could keep up with people who had been doing it longer than me," Brooks said. "I knew my best shot to make it (in college) was by punting."

After two years getting on track at Georgia Military College and a red-shirt season at Georgia Tech, Brooks burst onto the national punting scene. Almost half of Brooks' punts last season left opponents pinned inside the 20. Of his 79 punts, 27 went for more than 50 yards and seven for over 60.

This year, his gross average is slightly down but his efficiency is better than ever. Of his 47 punts this year, 23 have been downed inside the 20 and only 12 have been returned. He has 16 more punts of at least 50 yards, including a career-long 66-yarder against Army.

"I've stopped trying to hit it so far, trying to kill it every time," Brooks said. "That's hard to do sometimes. But I've worked on getting consistent, doing the bitty things."

Those bitty things are what impress Guy the most.

"He is a team player," Guy said. "He sacrifices a lot of stuff, and that was one of the criteria I was looking for (in the Guy Award). Not just punting for yourself. He punts for the team."

Now Brooks hopes his improvement will make the difference in winning the Guy Award and getting a chance to follow Sepulveda into the NFL. He's relished the role as favorite.

"All the eyes are on me now," Brooks said. "I have to be able to deal with all the pressure and all the talk. Last year nobody knew anything about me, so I could just go out and do my stuff and it ended up a pretty good year. Now everybody is expecting you to be on top and have a good year."

Whether he wins the bronze replica trophy of Guy or not, Brooks has something even more important on his quest to make his own name as a punter. He has Guy's phone number and an open invitation to call.

"He's always said if I run into a problem or develop a glitch, he's glad to help out," Brooks said. "How great is that?"

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

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