Gophers controlling field position

Amid the Gophers football team’s string of cliché slogans is a rather unique one: “Reserve the right to punt.” “That’s a good thing,” head coach Tim Brewster said. “Punting is a positive thing for us.” Punting means turning the ball over, but it also means controlling where opponents start their drive. Punter Justin Kucek has pinned teams inside the 20-yard line 13 times this year. Additionally, kicker Joel Monroe is averaging almost 66 yards per kickoff and has four touchbacks, which adds up to the Gophers dominating the field-position game. Partly because of that, they are averaging 11.2 more points per game than opponents despite gaining fewer yards. “Field position is a huge part of the game that we talk about all the time,” Monroe said. “It really affects the game because, in the end, every yard you gain on a kickoff is more room your defense has, and if your defense makes a stop, that gets your offense closer to the end zone.âÄù On the opening kickoff of Minnesota’s most recent game, Illinois kicker Michael Cklamovski kicked the ball out of bounds, which, by rule, gave the Gophers the ball at the 40-yard line. With the short field, it took the Gophers just six plays to score. On the ensuing kickoff, Monroe kicked the ball into the end zone, which Arrelious Benn dropped, as Illinois started at their own 2-yard line. The Illini drove 70 yards, but because of their field position, had to attempt a 45-yard field goal, which they missed. After the Gophers drive, Kucek’s punt pinned the Illini at their own 13-yard line, the first of his three punts downed inside the 20-yard line. âÄúWeâÄôre out there and weâÄôre just trying to control the field position,âÄù Kucek said. âÄúIf I kick it into the end zone and the ball gets put out at the 20, well, that really kills it.âÄù Kucek trained with former NFL punter Mark Royals this offseason, who helped him with fundamentals like walking in a straight line and dropping the ball correctly. The year before, he attended the Ray Guy kicking camp, and this year is a contender for the Ray Guy Award, given to the nationâÄôs best punter. “I don’t think you can overemphasize Justin Kucek,” Brewster said. “Has he not been outstanding? I don’t know if there’s a better punter in the country than him. We certainly don’t believe so.” Kucek is one of the few collegiate punters in the country who uses the “flop punt,” more common in the NFL, which involves holding the ball with the nose facing downwards, and creates backspin to help the ball stick where it lands. Brewster, who coached in the NFL for five years, taught him the technique before last season. “Coach and I practice it every day,” Kucek said. “It’s kind of a consistent thing we do and it’s turned out to be a big advantage for the team.” After an Illini field goal made the score 7-3, Cklamovski shanked another kickoff. The ball landed out bounds on the fly, again giving Minnesota the ball at their 40-yard line. The Gophers didn’t make a first down, but had a dangerous opportunity at the end of the half. âÄúItâÄôs a big momentum change,âÄù Monroe said. âÄúEspecially if you have a team thatâÄôs trying to hang on and a kick goes out of bounds, itâÄôs huge. Now you have a short field and it changes the face of the game.âÄù Monroe, a senior, took over field goal kicking duties midway through last season, but has been kicking off since his sophomore year. His kickoff skills were the reason he made the team as a walk-on, he said, and eventually got him a scholarship. He said he now focuses more of his time on field goals, but still practices kickoffs three times a week. And no, he said, they are not the same. âÄúKickoffs are always something that gets overlooked a lot of the time,âÄù Monroe said. âÄúThe first kickoff against Illinois was huge. ThatâÄôs probably the best field position weâÄôve had off of a kickoff in a long time.âÄù The final glaring example of the differences in special teams against Illinois came in the fourth quarter, when Illinois lined up in a regular formation but âÄúpooch puntedâÄù from 38 yards out, hoping to down the ball deep inside Minnesota territory with no one to catch the ball. Instead, the ball landed in the end zone on the fly, and fans booed punter Anthony Santella off the field. âÄúSpecial teams is usually a silent difference,âÄù Monroe said. âÄúIf theyâÄôre slightly above average, or sometimes even excellent, they donâÄôt get noticed. But if theyâÄôre bad, it becomes very apparent.âÄù