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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Getting a leg up

Jayhawks punter Rojas spends time studying returners

Kansas’ Alonso Rojas kicks a field goal during the Jayhawks’ home opener last season against Florida International on Aug. 30, 2008. Rojas is preparing for his second season as the Jayhawks’ punter.

Kansas’ Alonso Rojas kicks a field goal during the Jayhawks’ home opener last season against Florida International on Aug. 30, 2008. Rojas is preparing for his second season as the Jayhawks’ punter.

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Often lost in the enduring images that come to mind when recalling the Kansas University football team’s 40-37 victory over Missouri in the 2008 Border War — the sky spitting snowflakes, KU quarterback Todd Reesing’s game-winning lob to receiver Kerry Meier with less than a minute to go — is the scene of a frustrated and dejected Jeremy Maclin making his way from the field after another unsuccessful punt return.

Although he was punted to on four occasions that day at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, Maclin, an All-American return man for the Tigers, failed to record a single punt-return yard as Kansas punter Alonso Rojas, using a rugby-style approach, essentially negated one of the nation’s most dangerous returners while dropping three punts inside Missouri’s 20-yard line, including one at the Tigers’ two-yard line that ultimately resulted in a safety.

“If you look at the Missouri game,” KU special teams coordinator Louie Matsakis says, “he took (Maclin) completely out of the game.”

Although there were sexier storylines to emerge from the Jayhawks’ victory that day, including a dazzling finish that featured four touchdowns in the game’s final seven minutes, the Missouri game highlighted an oftentimes forgotten truth in the realm of college football: A good punter can be an invaluable asset.

In his first year of eligibility with the Jayhawks in 2008, Rojas, who transferred from Bowling Green following the 2006 season, finished fifth in the conference in yards per punt (40.7) and — as evidenced by the Border War — displayed a knack for dropping balls inside opponents’ 20-yard line.

And despite jokes about the seemingly easy-going lives of specialists (“They golf all the time while we’re practicing,” says Kansas offensive lineman Brad Thorson), Rojas proved that preparing to punt on a weekly basis is far from a laid-back gig.

In addition to undergoing the same physical conditioning as his more high-profile teammates —lifting, running, etc. — the Miami native immerses himself in the numerous aspects of special-teams game-planning. In the days leading up to a game, for instance, Rojas regularly can be found in the video room at the Anderson Family Football Complex, studying film of the upcoming opponents’ punt returner. More specifically, he’s searching for a “tell,” a returner’s tendency to cheat up in an attempt to get a running start or to tip which direction he intends to run by shifting his weight to one side or the other — something he might be able to exploit.

Sometimes, he says, it’s easy. Other times, as in the case of Maclin — who Rojas says has a natural ability to read the body language of punters — it can be a bit more difficult.

Because opposing punt returners are doing the same thing in their video rooms — looking for weaknesses, such as how a punter aligns his hips moments before kicking, that similarly might be taken advantage of — the result is a game-day chess match between punter and punt returner, a fascinating drama that will go unnoticed by the majority of fans.

“There are certain guys that he can just tell by their stance what they’re going to do,” says Matsakis. “Are they going to run the ball up the middle? If they’ve got their weight on the balls of their feet, they’re going to run the ball up the middle of the field. If they’ve got more weight on one side or the other — or they’re shifted one way or the other — it’s going to be some sort of sideline-type return. It’s things that, once you get good as a punter, these are the little fine-tuning aspects that you notice.”

Just as much of Rojas’ time, meanwhile, is devoted to self-evaluation.

During typical Kansas practices, there are two cameras set up to record the actions of the special-teams units and another focused solely on Rojas.

As Rojas carries out his punts, the camera catches each step of the process, and afterward, player and coach retreat to the video room, where they examine the footage, take notes and discuss the presence of any irregularities that might lead to long-term mechanics problems.

“A lot of it is like a golf swing,” Matsakis says. “You can do really well for a while, and then all of a sudden it’s gone. If you’re not filming yourself and constantly critiquing it, you’ll never get it back. And that’s what happens to a lot of kickers. They miss one or two field goals, punters shank a couple, they get into a slump, and they never know how to correct it.”

This is not to say, however, that working as a punter is without its lighter moments.

It is not uncommon, for instance, for teammates to wander over to the specialists after practice and see them gleefully going through various late-game scenarios, the punter’s equivalent of a game-winning shot in the driveway.

“We’ll be like, ‘It’s the Big 12 championship, we’re up by a touchdown and an extra point, we’re backed up in our end zone, there’s 30 second left, what do we do?’” Rojas says. “So they’ll snap the ball, and I’ll boot it real far, and we’ll mess around celebrating about how good of a punt it is.”

And without the widespread acclaim afforded players at more prominent positions, Rojas manages to find pleasure in some of the game’s subtle joys.

“The thing I absolutely love most is punt returners who think they’re slick and that they can cheat up — kind of, ‘I’m gonna run up and catch this ball and score a touchdown,’” says Rojas, smiling. “And right before you punt the ball, you see them kind of cheat to different directions, and then you just completely boot it over their head and just see the ball fly over them while they’re just running backwards.”

This summer, the Kansas coaching staff’s focus has been on improving Rojas’ strength.

According to Matsakis, a 15- to 20-pound improvement on a couple of key lifts — namely, bench presses, hang cleans and squats — potentially could add eight to 10 yards and between a half and three-quarters of a second of hangtime to his punts — relatively small gains, to be sure, but ones that can have a profound impact on a game.

“Now you kick a ball, and what was a 42-yard punt, with 4.5 (-second) hangtime, becomes 45, 47 and a 4.9 (hang-time),” Matsakis says. “And now they’re fair-catching it instead of returning it.”

In the meantime, Rojas is in the process of preparing for his second season at Kansas, one in which the Jayhawks likely could be battling for their first outright Big 12 North title in school history.

With a number of league punt returners gone, including Maclin, Rojas soon will begin studying a new crop of returners, carrying on in the ongoing chess match, continuing to tweak his technique where necessary, and maybe, if things fall into place, making those post-practice, game-on-the-line scenarios a reality.

Comments

ohjayhawk 5 years, 3 months ago

Aweome article. I never realized the intracacies of the special teams units. I guess it shouldn't surprise me, but I've honestly never given it much though before. Great insight!

jhawk23 5 years, 3 months ago

"Rojas, who transferred from Bowling Green following the 2006 season . . . ."

Actually, Doogie, he transferred after the 2007 season. He left Bowling Green after the 2006 season, but spent the next year taking classes and working out on his own in Florida. Although your statement is technically not untrue that, yes, he transferred following the 2006 season (because after the 2007 season is, indeed, after the 2006 season), your article mistakenly implies this happened immediately after the 2006 season. The inference that naturally follows is that he sat out a year after arriving at Kansas, which, obviously, didn't happen.

Editors: This is exactly the kind of information that a KU journalism grad applying for a job as an entry-level beat writer already would know off the top of his head. But a Methzou journalism grad would not.

John Strayer 5 years, 3 months ago

Ahhh...nothing like journalistic punk talk in the morning. Really?

Ashwin Rao 5 years, 3 months ago

Guys let him be. He was not wrong... He just didn't give the details that you were looking for. I felt that the article was well written and highlighted one area of the game that people don't put too much thought into... Next time, I will pay particular attention to the body language of both the punter & the punt returner.

Thanks, Dugan!

Doug Merrill 5 years, 3 months ago

Dugan, well written, accurate and way too good an article for the author to spend any time reading messages from this list!

jhawk23 and jhawkclassof02 Really, why would any writer care about what gets written here after your silly responses to this very good article? All you can respond to is where the writer went to school and also your misunderstanding of his very clear sentence. Rojas transferred after the 2006 season, true or false? True, he quit BG after the 2006 season. Sometime later (STILL after the 2006 season) he transferred to KU. There was no 'implication' about 'immediately after' except in your own mind and you immediately connect your criticism to the ludicrous comment that a KU grad would have known this detail. Do you really think the KU WAW School of Journalism spends time teaching their students about the transfer dates of KU football players?

After this reception to an excellent article, why would he ever care what you think of his writing? Since we can assume that he doesn't care what you think of his writing and since this isn't a journalism class assignment, and since we don't care either (believe me, we don't) how about you respond to the content of the article, the good information about punters and returners, something about which we can all feel pretty certain you didn't know any more than the rest of us did, and give up your dream of an editor job?

The rest of us are hungry for KU football articles. I am hopeful that the LJW writers don't read what you write. Pearls before swine!

Kevin Long 5 years, 3 months ago

It's nice to hear about the guys who work hard, but don't get all the spot light. I thought he did well last year and hope his hard work pays off.

troutsee 5 years, 3 months ago

I also get tired of guys picking on Dugan. It gets boring. i'm just grateful for the FB article and am looking forward to a big season.

jayhawkintx73 5 years, 3 months ago

Actually, he was required to sit out a year athletically. When you transfer from 4 year school to another 4 year school, you have to sit out a year athletically and lose a year of eligibility as well.

lance1jhawk 5 years, 3 months ago

Nice article... Special teams was key in the win at arrowhead, but they were also quite the liability for us the last couple of years. Missed field goals, allowing long returns and shanked punts. I'm hoping that all this attention to the punting corp translates into better special teams all around.

Jesse... Is there anyway we can get a countdown to Kickoff ticker across the top of the KUSports.com page.

Dirk Medema 5 years, 3 months ago

jayhawkintx73 - There are indeed some instances when an athlete must sit out AND lose the year of eligibility, but this is not it. You can check out the roster to confirm that Rojas is currently a Jr. If he had lost the year, he would have been a Jr last year.

Excellent comments Trout, Doug, ... on a nice article. jhawk23 - If you really want to critique journalism, you would be wise to check your own thoughts first. Rojas transferred from Bowling Green following the 2006 season, and transferred to KU after the 2007 season. Dugan accurately comments that Alonso was able to kick last year in his first at KU. He communicated the same info that you commented about, but just in a bit more creative way. I thought it was nice to see something other than the standard regurgitation of dates. That being said, I'm lovin' any word from the team.

hawk316 5 years, 3 months ago

A good punter is an extremely valuable weapon for a football team. We're fortunate to have one.

mhbtiger 5 years, 3 months ago

jhawk23, you were'nt accepted into the Mizzou J-School.

sevenyearhawk 5 years, 3 months ago

Another Kansas Football story ... in June?

I'll take it!

KGphoto 5 years, 3 months ago

Cool story Dig-Dug!

But you didn't expound on the caption. He's our long field goal kicker too isn't he? I know he kicked at least one long one. That's a little different.

And if I remember correctly, he killed Mini Soda with boomers in the bowl game.

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