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Why isn’t Skyler punting very DeLong?

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I’m so sorry for that headline

After Nick Saban’s rant on Saturday about us media folk needing to be more negative, we’ve all been scrambling to come up with things. It just so happens that the current Alabama punter, Sklyer DeLong, isn’t quite on the near-Heisman level that his predecessor, JK Scott was, and therefore is under quite a bit of nitpicking scrutiny around here. It also just so happens that, not only am I a writer, but I also once punted a football. Just once though.

In any case, I thought we’d take a journey through each of DeLong’s six punts from the Texas A&M game to see what we find. Has he really been that bad? Or were we just spoiled from Scott’s howitzer cannon of a leg?

9:10 left in the first quarter

It’s 4th and 10 on the Texas A&M 36, and I was quite upset we were punting instead of either going for a long field goal or a Tua pass on 4th. But what do I know? This was probably DeLong’s best punt of his career so far.

He went with a conventional, straight shouldered punt, and lobbed it straight up into the air. The ball traveled exactly 35 yards down the field. Despite such a short field, it had a hang time of 4.3 seconds, allowing Henry Ruggs to get down the field and catch it on the 1 yard line.

11:01 left in the 2nd quarter

This is a tough situation to punt from. It’s 4th and 24 from his own 6 yard line, and his distance back from the line of scrimmage is a little tighter than he’d like. He takes two steps to the right before twisting to hit the ball straight on. It’s not a rugby-style, like the announcers said, nor is it a bad form of punting (contrary to what some on the internet have said). It’s closer to a soccer goalkeeper style punt that’s often easier to spiral the punt and have tighter control over the aim.

However, he doesn’t get a much height or distance on it. It travels 34 yards to the 40, then fortunately rolls 17 more yards. The total hang time was only 3.6 seconds.

With the lack of definition and frame rates available on YouTube replays, I can only speculate on his form. But from the way the punt acted, my best guess is that he was worried about kicking out of his own endzone and wanted to hit it extra hard. In pressing, he pushes a little downward on his drop, and then makes contact lower than intended. The way your foot is angled in this case means that it contacts the back of the ball before the front of it, and it gets a hard topspin with little height.

12:30 left in the 3rd quarter

It’s 4th and 12 from the Alabama 39 yard line. He takes a couple of steps to the right again, then launches into his kick. It’s perfect form to the best I can tell, but it shanks right and only gets 13 yards. I have no clue what the hang time is.

There’s not a whole lot to say here. His foot went to the left of the ball (or he dropped the ball to the right of his foot. Take your pick), and the ball went sideways. Sometimes you just miss. There’s only a couple of centimeters of error there, it happens. But then again, he’s got a full ride to college to not miss that centimeter.

4:17 left in the 3rd quarter

This time it’s 4th and 8 from that Alabama 27, which is a punter’s favorite area to punt from as he can boot it at full strength without worrying about the endzone, but also isn’t backed into his own endzone.

DeLong goes for a step to the right for the third punt in a row, but pressure comes up the middle and knocks his protector straight back at him. Though he actually did have enough room, he ends up not extending his knee all the way out and short-legs the punt. The ball gets 3.6 seconds of hang time, which actually isn’t that bad for only traveling 22 yards past the line of scrimmage. It did get a 9 yard roll after landing, but was still a pretty disappointing punt.

13:12 left in the 4th quarter

This time DeLong is punting from the Alabama 39 yard line, and he switches back to the more conventional straight forward punt style. He hits it solidly, and it lands at the 20 yard-line (41 yards, for those of you math uninclined) after a shorter 3.8 second hang time. The returner messed up and didn’t field the ball, and it wound up rolling for an additional 9 yards. This one goes down as an exceptional 50-yard punt downed at the 11. But the hang time and actual distance were both merely average... it just got a good bounce after a mistake from the return man.

3:02 left in the 4th quarter

Kicking from the A&M 48 yard line, this one is a nearly identical situation to his opening punt, and he hits it nearly identically as well: straight forward with a 4.3 second hang time and traveling 36 yards. Go back and check out what I said about the first punt. This one was exactly the same, just moved 12 yards further back. The precision and consistency in his muscle memory was nice to see after some of his mishits in the the middle of the game, though I would have liked to see slightly more power behind it to get into the 10-yard zone.

So, all said, we had 6 punts for an average of 36 yards. But that doesn’t really tell the story. Two of his best punts were both shorter, 35 yarders, that he got exceptional hang time on and downed in the redzone (one on the 1 yard line). His two 50+ yard hits both had little hang time and only mid-distance (which is exactly what returners like to take back for touchdowns) but got lucky with bounces after they landed. His other two punts were a shank and one that he didn’t follow through because of the rush.

I said this in an article back in March when DeLong joined the team:

That’s where the similarities end, though. Where Scott had a punting motion reminiscent of a swinging trebuchet, DeLong hits the ball lower and with a quicker kicking motion. He puts a lot of spin on his punts, which can lead to funky bounces and mishandled catches. He is also adept at dropping the ball nose-down to make a knuckling backspin when he’s trying to pin the other team on the goal line.

He’s extremely accurate with both his distance and aiming to the sides, and has a feel for making the ball do exactly what he wants.

However, his short-swing kicking style also limits the distance or hangtime (he can get one, but not both). There isn’t as much of a powerful swing like we saw the last 4 years with Scott, so we probably won’t often see the 55 yard boomers that take out the nearest blimps. I figure he’ll usually hover around 41-42 yards per punt, with the best ones hitting about 50. At the same time, I don’t expect to see as many shanks as we saw in the Scott reign.

I never expected DeLong to really have a cannon of a leg. He’s at his best when aiming his punts in a short field to pin the opponent deep. However, his lack of consistency and multiple shanks so far this season have been disappointing. It will be interesting to watch to see if he manages to right that in the coming years. He may never be the field-flipping weapon that we may have envisioned, but he might become that trick-up-the-sleeve player who can really mess up an opponent’s offense by pinning them on their own goal line with regularity, as long as Tua keeps moving the ball to around midfield.