Punting Without Peer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008
By Nick Wagoner
Five years ago, a low line drive punt traveling 41 yards that netted just 12 yards such as the one Donnie Jones booted in the first quarter against San Francisco on Nov. 16, would have been enough to drive Jones to a point of frustration that would have ruined him for the rest of the game.
Such is the fragile psyche of a young punter in the NFL. At one of the few positions in the NFL where success or failure can be instantly recognized by anyone watching, it’s up to the punter to immediately put the previous punt – good or bad – in the rearview mirror.
“I’d go in the toilet,” Jones said. “I was bad. I thought I was going to get cut. Then it would kind of snowball.”
Since arriving in St. Louis on April 25, 2007 as a free agent, that snowball has apparently melted.
In his first season as a Ram, Jones posted one of the finest seasons by a punter in franchise history. His 47.2 yard average was the highest season average in franchise history and helped him finish second in the NFC and third in the NFL in that category.
And for as good as Jones was in 2007, he appears poised to take those numbers to a new level.
Through 12 games, Jones leads the NFL with a 49.7 yard average on 63 punts. Perhaps more impressive and a testament to the hang time and angle of his punts in addition to the distance is Jones’ 40.7 net average which is good for third in the league and first in the NFC in that category.
“I do think he’s a Pro Bowler,” coach Jim Haslett said. “There are a couple things. One, he has a live leg, a really live leg. He’s a big guy, he’s powerful. He can control the ball well, he can spot it, he can place it where he wants to. If he wants to kick it deep, he can kick it high. He can do almost anything he wants. I think Donnie feels good about it; he can’t punt it down there. We don’t have to worry about punting it out of bounds or sideways if we have a great returner. We punt to the best. The coverage units have been doing a good job and obviously he has a heck of a leg on him.”
Just 26 games into his career as a Ram, it’s safe to say the days of fretting over being released or where his next opportunity might come are a thing of the past for Jones.
“When I got here I finally said ‘Listen, you kicked a bad one so what are you going to do now?’” Jones said. “Are you going to sit there and sulk and say oh what am I going to do? I used to do all of that stuff and it kills you. Your head is not even in the game so you hit a bad one, it’s over. It’s a new game, go back out, start over and do it. The bad ones are going to happen. As much as you don’t want them to happen, they just do for some reason. You have to get over it.”
PLEASED TO PUNT
The process of remembering to forget has been many years in the making for Jones. As a fifth grader in Baton Rouge, Louis., Jones was one of the bigger kids in his class.
When he went to his little league coaches asking for a shot to punt, the response wasn’t what he hoped. His coaches wanted him on the offensive line, something Jones didn’t have much of a taste for and he never got the opportunity to punt.
Finally as a freshman at Catholic High, Jones got the chance to try out as a punter. He also played receiver but broke his foot and his kicking career never got off the ground.
By the time he was a junior, Jones had proved he could do it but it didn’t matter much because he was the backup. When the player in front of him abruptly quit the team, Jones got his chance at last.
Jones made the most of that chance, enjoying a strong junior season that earned him scholarship offers from Oklahoma and Louisiana State as well as late interest from Ohio State.
Even then, the thought of punting professionally wasn’t more than a distant hope.
“I thought maybe I could get a scholarship to school for this punting thing,” Jones said. “I worked on it, my dad took me to a bunch of camps and we traveled all over. It got college paid for and ultimately it was a stepping stone to where I am now. It’s crazy.”
Ultimately, Jones decided to play his college football in his backyard at LSU. In five seasons there including a redshirt year, Jones was a part of two Southeastern Conference Championships and a national title.
For most of his time growing up, Jones had hoped that punting could maybe pay his way through college and then he’d go on to a normal life, perhaps in finance (his college major).
As a senior at LSU, it began to become clear that Jones would at least get a shot to punt professionally.
“I never thought I’d play in the NFL,” Jones said. “It wasn’t until my senior year that they told me I might have a shot. It got kind of exciting but I never thought this would happen.”
A ROCKY START
Seattle selected Jones in the seventh round (No. 224 overall) of the 2004 NFL Draft, which is an honor for any punter.
Jones had enjoyed plenty of success through high school and college but wasn’t accustomed to the struggle that would await him as a rookie in the NFL.
Jones shuttled between the practice squad and the active roster, ultimately punting 26 times for an average of just 38 yards per attempt with a net of 32.2.
It was a trying season for Jones, who says he put too much pressure on himself to perform.
“I had a miserable year there,” Jones said. “It was bad.”
On July 25, 2005, the Seahawks said goodbye to Jones. Meanwhile, Nick Saban, who coached Jones at LSU, had taken the head coaching job in Miami.
On Sept. 5, Jones signed on to the Dolphins practice squad. Five days later, punter Matt Turk suffered a groin injury and Jones was suddenly back in the mix.
For the next two seasons, Jones was solid if unspectacular as he posted a strong 2005 and what he calls an ‘average’ 2006.
Still, whatever he did was enough to draw the interest of the Rams as Jones became a restricted free agent. St. Louis moved quickly to sign Jones to an offer sheet.
In the process, the Rams gave up a seventh-round pick as compensation and finally had a punter to stop the revolving door that had been at the position since the team moved to St. Louis.
A FRESH START
Jones’ time in Seattle and Miami was marked by constant pressure from coaches and people around him to perform.
In that time, nobody put more pressure on him to do well than Jones himself.
“My first few years in the NFL I would watch the film and just try to nitpick everything and find what I was doing wrong,” Jones said. “I got here and just said ‘Screw it, just punt, just go kick it. That’s it.’ When you worry about other stuff, you can’t focus on going out and doing your part. That’s all I tell myself.”
Soon after his arrival, Jones had a conversation with special teams coach Al Roberts. Roberts was up front with Jones, telling him that he didn’t know much about the intricacies of punting but that he’d help Jones when asked.
For his part, Jones liked the idea of being left to his own mechanics. After all, Jones had made it that far on his natural ability and any further tinkering with his process only complicated matters more.
“It’s been ‘Hey, we signed you here, you’re our guy go out and be yourself,’” Jones said. “That’s what Coach Roberts has been telling me. Just be Donnie Jones, don’t be anyone else.”
Taking his cue from Roberts, Jones did just that in 2007. He cut loose and focused on doing everything he can to alter field position and put the defense in the best position to succeed.
This offseason, the Rams signed kicker Josh Brown, who is perhaps Jones’ closest friend on the team. Brown was with the Seahawks when Jones was in Seattle and says the difference in Jones from then to now is all in his mindset.
“I think when you stop over analyzing and when you stop pushing to be what everyone else wants you to be and stop doing what everyone else asks you to do, I think when you can let that go and just come out there and swing in a game just like it’s practice, you are going to be good,” Brown said. “When I first met Donnie, he wasn’t that way. He was a heavy thinker, always studying this and that and over thinking the process. In the last couple years, he’s done a good job of coming out there and just letting it go. For some guys, that’s half the battle is just letting go of all the things everyone tries to teach you and help you with.”
Jones is the first to admit he still battles with the internal struggle to put those bad punts in the past quickly though he’s clearly much better at it than he was in the past.
The security of a long term contract has certainly helped Jones get past any mental blocks but he points out that there’s a certain amount of inherent pressure that goes with a big money contract.
This season, Jones is finally starting to get recognition for his performance and a strong case can be made that he is deserving of his first Pro Bowl trip assuming he finishes the final five games like he played the first 11.
But Jones views thinking about a trip to Hawaii like he does statistics: those are distractions that will only take away from his performance.
“The mind is a funny thing,” Jones said. “I think punting is 95 percent mental. When you are in that groove and everything is going great, you can’t mi**** a ball. When something bad happens, how do you respond? You have to forget it and move on.”
A PERMANENT HOME
While Jones has only been in St. Louis for a couple of years, it’s already become more to him than just the place where he found his punting groove.
Jones and his wife Aubrie had a son Weston last year, who Jones says is his main motivation for continuing his success.
And though a punter is easy to put under the microscope on every kick, it’s also one of the few positions in the league that can provide long term job stability once you are established.
“It’s very hard to break in,” Jones said. “Very few guys get drafted or come in on their first year and do well. I came here and it just kind of took off for me. Once you get in and you prove you can do it…there are a lot of veterans. There’s a trust factor knowing what you will get from this guy. You keep working, battle through it and eventually you find your spot. Once you establish yourself, you are more likely to get called upon for a job.”
Jones says he hopes to kick in St. Louis for many years to come. At the rate he’s kicked since his arrival, he won’t find many objections to his staying until his powerful left leg falls off.
Re: Punting Without Peer
Al Roberts is the special teams coach, right? RIGHT!
Originally Posted by RamWraith
Punting is part of the special teams, right? RIGHT!
Roberts admits to the player that he doesn't know much about the intricacies of punting? What?
Lastly, instead of telling Jones, just to go out there and be Donnie Jones he could of told him to be Ray Guy.:D