Football Punter

Football Punter

Punters are often overlooked when it comes to football players. Many fans are unhappy when a punter comes on the field, as punts only occur when a team is turning the ball over after failing to get a first down on offense. However, despite coming into the game during frustrating situations, punters have a key responsibility in football, and their performance can significantly affect the game. Read on to learn all about punters in football!  

What is a Punter in Football?

In football, the punter is a player on the special teams squad whose role is to catch a long snap, typically on fourth down, and kick the ball to the opposing team. This type of kick is called a punt, and occurs whenever the offensive team has failed to make a first down after their first three tries in a down cycle. The punter’s goal is to kick the ball far enough downfield so that the returning team, which will then become the offense, does not have a good field position. The punter must be very cautious in order to avoid “outkicking” their coverage, which means to kick the ball too far away. This puts the kicking team at a disadvantage by giving the punt returner more space to make their return since the kicking team cannot get to them in time. In addition, if the ball is over kicked and enters the other team’s end zone, it results in a touchback that gives the opponent the ball at their own 25-yard line.

When Do Punters Enter A Game?

Almost exclusively, punters enter the game when their team reaches fourth down in their current down cycle, meaning that they have not managed to achieve a 10-yard gain in the three previous downs. Sometimes, if a team is within only a couple of yards of a first down and in their opponent’s half of the field, they may elect to go for the first down rather than punting. Although usually, if an offense is on fourth down and has more than a few yards to go for a first down, they will choose to punt.

Naturally, because punting is a form of turnover to the other team, most fans and football players aren’t pleased when the punter has to come out onto the field. However, in many cases, a punt is the best way to salvage a failed offensive drive because attempting to get a first down on fourth down with multiple yards to gain is extremely difficult. In these situations, the defense will be very interested in stopping the offense and forcing a turnover on downs, which will get them a good field position. A punt, while a turnover to the other team, gives the offense a chance to lessen the other team’s odds of scoring by forcing them to start further down the field.

Punter Responsibilities

The role of the punter can be a challenging one. Although the kick happens in a few seconds, there are a lot of steps that have to occur perfectly, or else the kick could be skewed or missed altogether. After the ball is snapped, the punter has only a few seconds to perform the kick. He is responsible for catching the ball and making sure his kick is executed before a defender can block the ball. However, the rules prohibit defenders from contacting the punter, and doing so can result in a penalty.

Punters, generally, are responsible for a few things: kicking the ball far, keeping it in the air as long as possible, and trying to place it far in the backfield without going into the end zone. These three goals will ensure a good punt, after which it is the coverage team’s job to prevent a potential return.

Punter Plays

Normal punter plays require a punter to kick the ball as close to the opposing end zone as possible. Punting trick plays attempt to pick up another set of downs by having the punter act as a quarterback.

Normal Punts

Normal punts attempt to place the ball near the opposing end zone so that the opposing offense must cover the longest possible distance to score. Punts are typically performed on fourth down when the offense is not confident in picking up enough yards for a first down, and they do not want to turn the ball over in a favorable position.

If the punting squad is near its own end zone, a long, low kick is required to cover the maximum distance. If they are closer to the 50-yard line, a high, arcing punt is needed to force a fair catch and prevent a costly return. From either distance, a punter lines up about 15 yards behind the long snapper. The two most common types of punting motions used in the NFL are the end-over-end punt and the spiral punt. The longest punts are achieved using a spiral punt.

A punt that lands in an opponent’s end zone is a touchback, which means that the offense will start with the ball from their own 25-yard line. While this is a favorable outcome, the best punters try to avoid touchbacks, instead making the ball land as close to the goal line as possible without crossing into the end zone. This can result in teams starting on their own 10-yard line or closer, which is an excellent performance by the punter and coverage team.

Punting Trick Plays

While rare, punters are occasionally asked to execute trick plays, which take the form of fake punts. A fake punt can either be a running or a passing play. To execute a trick play, a punter will receive the snap from the long snapper as normal, then make a pretend windup as if they are about to make a kick. Once the defenders have prepared to defend a punt return, the punter will then throw the ball to a receiver or rush the ball downfield themself.

Roughing The Kicker

If the punter is tackled during or after punting the football, a penalty called “roughing the kicker” is often called, as kickers are considered protected players in football, much like quarterbacks, meaning that they cannot be treated roughly. If roughing the kicker is called and confirmed, the kicking team is awarded the ball, as well as 15 extra yards from the spot of the line of scrimmage. This can be a major source of energy for an offense, as it converts their failed drive into a fresh down cycle that they can potentially use to score. However, roughing the kicker naturally comes with the risk of injury to the punter, and thus, it isn’t something that teams want to happen to one of their players.

Punter Skills

As special teams players, punters are known for their unique skills, and these skills can make a huge difference in the outcome of a game. The most important skill a punter must possess is a powerful kick and the ability to precisely angle the ball. A good punt must be both long and high, having a lot of “hang time” in the air, meaning that it possesses a high arc that keeps it airborne for a long time. The hang time of a punt is important because it gives the coverage team time to reach the punt returner, making a tackle in the backfield more likely. If the punt is too short or doesn’t have enough hang time, the returner may catch it before the coverage players reach them, giving them space for a long return.

A lesser-known punting skill is the ability to put spin on the ball when it is kicked. An unnaturally-spinning punt can be very hard to catch, and if a returner attempts to catch a punt and drops it, the punting team can potentially recover the ball, bringing their offensive drive back to life.

A final skill necessary for punters is the placement of a kick. Oftentimes, punters will attempt to aim their punts at what is called the “coffin corner” of the field. The coffin corner is the corner of the field created by the end zone line and the sideline, taking up the place between the orange pylons and approximately the five-yard line. If a punter can kick the ball in such a way that it lands in this corner and immediately bounces out of bounds, the return team will be in terrible field position, making it far less likely that they will complete a drive and score. 

Notable NFL Punters

  • Shane Lechler
  • Yale Lary
  • Ray Guy
  • Sammy Baugh
  • Sean Landeta
  • Jerrel Wilson
  • Reggie Roby
  • Johnny Hekker
  • Andy Lee
  • Pat McAfee
  • Thomas Morstead
  • Kevin Huber
  • Bryan Anger
  • Brett Kern
  • Donnie Jones

FAQ

What is a punter in football?

A punter in football is the player that kicks the balls on punting plays. Punting plays usually occur on fourth down, when the offense does not feel confident that they will gain enough yardage to earn a first down. In these situations, the coach will send the punting unit on the field in order to punt the ball deep into opposing territory. In punting plays, the long snapper snaps the ball to the punter, and gunners run downfield to defend the return.

What football positions kick the ball?

Kickers and punters are the only two positions that kick the ball in football. Kickers are the players who make kicks during kickoffs and field goals. Punters make kicks during punting plays. A difference between kicking and punting is that punters hold the ball and drop kick it down the field while kickers kick a held ball on field goals or a ball resting on a tee in kickoffs.

Can a punter throw the ball?

A punter can throw the ball, and they occasionally do, in a trick play. Fake punts are part of any good punter’s arsenal, and they can be deployed deliberately, as part of a longer strategy, or on-the-fly, as a reaction to an unfavorable situation. Sometimes an offensive coordinator will plan a fake punt to deliberately confuse opposing coaches. Other times, a punter may accidentally miss the snap or otherwise botch the play and then throw the ball as a last resort since punting is no longer possible.