While all of Australia was thrilled to see Aussie punter Lachlan Edwards go in the seventh round of the NFL draft to the New York Jets, many also wondered why at the same time two-time college punter of the year Tom Hackett was ignored.
The argument was not about who was the better punter, as Edwards and Hackett had spectacular years. And with Hackett being picked up minutes after the draft as a free agent, both have an equal chance to pick up the Jets punting spot.
The only difference between the two punters situations now is Edwards receives a guaranteed signing bonus of around $40,000 USD, while Hackett receives a grand total of $5,000.
It still begs the question though, why was no team interested in a two-time Ray Guy award winner widely regarded as the best performed punter in college?
The answer lies in the difference between the NCAA college rules, and those of the NFL.
What is a rugby style punt?
Just to clarify for the sake of this article what a “rugby style punt” is. While the end-over-end punt is quite often called a rugby punt, instead what this article is referring to is the method Tom Hackett used so often in college, where the punter receives the ball, runs out to his left or right, and then punts the end over end style away from the receiver.
In a traditional punting style, the punter will receive the ball, take two to three steps in a straight line, and punt the ball immediately aiming for distance and hang time.
You can see Hackett performing both styles in the video below.
NFL vs NCAA punting rules
I asked the question several times through the past few weeks and in recent podcasts as to why the end over end, rugby style punt was not seen more in the NFL.
Hackett used this to amazing effect through his years at college, yet it is not seen in the NFL punting stocks at all these days.
The same rule that has Hackett’s NFL future up in the air, is the same rule that makes using the roll out, end over end style punt a rare occurrence in the NFL.
The rule difference? The amount of players allowed downfield before the punt.
According to NCAA rules, there is no rule against sending as many players downfield before the punt as you like. In fact the only penalty around punting in the NCAA rule book that is of relevance is this one around forward passes.
Ineligible Receiver Downfield
No originally ineligible receiver shall be or have been more than three yards beyond the neutral zone until a legal forward pass that crosses the neutral zone has been thrown (A.R. 7-3-10-I and II). PENALTY—Five yards from the previous spot [S37].
In the NFL however, the rules are vastly different. The NFL rule book states that only the players referred to as “gunners” or “end men” are allowed to head downfield before the punt.
KICKING TEAM PLAYERS ON LINE DURING KICK
Article 2 During a kick from scrimmage, only the end men (eligible receivers) on the line of scrimmage at the time of the snap, or an eligible receiver who is aligned or in motion behind the line and is more than one yard outside the end man, are permitted to advance more than one yard beyond the line before the ball is kicked.
Penalty: For advancing more than one yard beyond the line of scrimmage before the ball is kicked: Loss of five yards.
NFL punting formation
For those that are not across the nuances of a punting formation (who is?), here is how a NFL punting formation typically looks as a team lines up for a punt.
You can see in this visual, the players marked in yellow are the gunners, and are outside the lineman. These players are considered potential receivers for plays such as fake punts and are allowed to head downfield as soon as the ball is snapped.
The players marked with red arrows however are not, they form the line and must remain within one yard of the neutral zone until the punt is made.
College punting formation
In college, the formation looks completely different. Below you can see players marked in yellow can head off downfield as soon as the ball is snapped. In fact even those marked in red could head downfield, but will remain to protect the punter.
The threat of a fake punt play means the defensive unit can’t afford to ignore these players rushing downfield and go for the punter, and so the punter has as much time, if not more than a NFL punter to punt the ball, and far fewer players to beat should he want to run the ball.
Tom Hackett excelled at pinning receivers to the sidelines. His strength was in the accuracy of his directional kicking more so than his leg strength.
If you watch the below highlight clips of Hackett, you will notice he “rolls out” quite often to punt, mean he runs five or so yards and kicks on the run. He can do this because there is usually only three or four players trying to get to the punter, providing plenty of space to roll out and change the angle of the kick.
In the NFL however, with limited players allowed to head downfield, most of the defensive team will pressure the line and try to get to the punter, providing danger for hanging onto the ball for too long.
The other factor going against a rugby style punter such as Hackett is the difference in hang time between a torpedo style punt versus a rugby style punt. On average, the hang time of a well hit torpedo punt will be between five and five and a half seconds.
The hang time of a kick on the run is at best in the four-second range. Combine that with the requirements for the offensive players to not pass the neutral zone until the ball is kicked, and it makes little sense in most cases to do any more than take two to three steps and punt with maximum hang time.
Punter becomes a runner
The final thing to note on the Hackett style from college. In the NFL, punters are well protected by the rules. While punting, they cannot be touched, only pressured.
If they start to run outside the box however, as Hackett does in college, they now become a runner and can be targeted by tacklers who would love nothing more than to bury a punter who typically will not have a replacement on the sidelines.
Is all hope lost for Hackett?
With all this going against his natural instincts, does this mean Hackett’s NFL chances are in jeopardy?
Looking over tape such as that below from Prokick Australia, Hackett has learned the traditional punting style, but with not as much tape with that style available, the Jets will need to see it in practice under game situations.
Word out of the NFL Combine was that Hackett was near the top in terms of accuracy with the traditional punting style, but may need to develop his leg strength to compete with booming punters such as countryman and direct competition at the Jets, Lachlan Edwards.
So there you go, you are now officially the life of the party when the topic of punters come up in dinner conversation (it does right?).