LEXINGTON, Ky. — Punting was the topic after Kentucky’s practice Wednesday, and while the Wildcats’ punting woes were well chronicled last season, first-year special teams coordinator Dean Hood is encouraged by what he sees from both punters.
Sophomore Grant McKinniss, the incumbent starter, now has competition from Columbia graduate transfer Matthew Panton. The addition of Panton, an Australian native, not only gives Kentucky a fresh competition, but also options when it comes to style. McKinniss is a traditional style punter while Panton can employ the rugby-style rolling kick. He was also used in short yardage situations at Columbia in hopes of pinning the offense deep in its own territory.
Hood said both punters are averaging around 42 yards per kick with Panton having a little better hang time than McKinniss.
“The averages have been way better than spring practice,” Hood said.
Kentucky ranked second to last in the SEC a year ago with 38.28 yards per punt. McKinniss didn’t want to reflect on his freshman campaign, saying he’s in a better place entering Year 2.
“This year I just feel a lot more comfortable,” he said. “I’m hitting better balls, just being a little more consistent.”
McKinniss said the competition Panton has brought has benefitted both players. Hood wouldn’t commit to a possible two-punter system, and right now the competition appears open. Panton said he wouldn’t have come to Kentucky if he didn’t think he had chance at the starting job.
Panton’s path to punting is unique. A rowing scholarship was the reason he left Australia to attend Columbia. But football was in the back of his mind.
“I kicked footballs all my life, Australian footballs, as soon as I could walk,” he said.
He joined the football team at Columbia in his sophomore year, but after graduating after his junior season, he had to look for another option because he couldn’t play at Columbia and be in graduate school at the same time. Hood’s connection with Australian punters in his tenure at Eastern Kentucky was crucial.
Jordan Berry, Hood’s most notable Australian punter, is now punting for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Berry’s name was brought up for another reason on Wednesday. Hood was asked if he, when at Eastern Kentucky, had ever employed a trick punt play where the punter booted the ball behind the line of scrimmage to a gunner split out wide. Here’s Hood telling the full story.
“I’m not gonna say it was me, but it was us,” Hood said with a laugh. “It’s actually the first time that’s ever been done in the history of college football. I had an Aussie punter named Jordan Berry who’s punting for the Steelers right now. We went two years and the Aussies have a hard time throwing the ball because they don’t throw it. They do everything with their feet. That’s the game. For two years we had a deal with multiple formations where if a guy was uncovered out there — ‘alert, alert, alert’, snap the ball to Berry and he’d throw it out there. For two years, he’s young, freshman, sophomore. I’m giving him a hard time, ‘Dude, you’re just awful. Your arm’s terrible.’ He took it. He had to take it. He was a freshman and sophomore, you know, and he was from a foreign country. He took it for about two years and then his junior year I got on him. ‘S***, coach, I can punt it out there better than I can throw it. I said, ‘OK, Billy Bad Butt, let me see ya.’ He caught it and punted it right out there to him. It was perfect. So then I timed him. ‘Throw it out there,’ I timed him. ‘Punt it out there,’ I timed him. Not even close how much faster and more accurate he was punting the ball to him.”
The next day Berry came to Hood with a rule book. A ball punted behind the line of scrimmage can be advanced by either team. And unlike a dropped pass, a dropped punt could still be scooped up and advanced.
The unheard of play was put to the test by accident in a game against Morehead State.
“There was a guy on the sideline uncovered and I wasn’t even paying attention,” Hood said. “I was jacking around on the sideline talking to some guys. All of a sudden I hear, ‘Alert, alert, alert’ and I’m like ‘Oh my God.’ I look out there and Berry took it, punted it to Trey Thomas and got a first down.”
More Kentucky practice notes
- Defensive lineman Quinton Bohanna and linebacker Josh Paschal have been the most talked about freshmen of defense, but not much is known about how the freshmen defensive backs have progressed: “A lot of potential,” defensive coordinator Matt House said of the group. “There’s great competition back there. I think they’ve shown up some but they also, as you put more in, they kinda take a step back then take a step forward. But definitely some potential there.”
- Lynn Bowden was working in light drills with the punt returners on Saturday, and Hood was asked about the chances Bowden will be used as a return man: “It’s going to be all up to Coach Stoops and how that plays out and what we’re gonna do with him,” Hood said. “We’re not at that point yet. We’re getting there pretty soon. Coach Stoops and I just talked about it a couple days ago. It’s getting closer to that point when I say, ‘OK, Coach Stoops, here’s what I’ve got for the depth chart. Tell me which guys you’re gonna hold.’”
- Kentucky will scrimmage for the first time in preseason camp on Saturday. As for what House is looking for from the defense: “No. 1, stop the run,” he said. “We want to continue to see the guys straining for the football and guys having situational football awareness, understanding whether it’s third and long, understanding when the ball gets into the strike zone, the red zone and just play football, not just run calls.”
- Kentucky has several former defensive coordinators on there staff, making Matt House’s transition to defensive coordinator, a position he’s had in the past, an easy one: “I think we got a bunch of guys who don’t have a bunch of egos, which that’s not always the case,” he said. “And they have one common goal: They want to win. At the end of the day, that’s what they want to do. They want to win.”