Football is a sport of great complexity, and many variables are factored into the outcome of a game. In the midst of all the emphasis on high-octane offenses, suffocating defenses, rocket-armed quarterbacks, and hard-hitting linebackers, the punting game often gets lost in the shuffle, and perhaps rightfully so. However, the fact remains that punters can alter the outcome of a contest, and sometimes do so in profound ways.
Although they can significantly affect the game, punters are constantly forced to echo the cries of Aretha Franklin, calling for respect, only to be ignored by deaf ears. In fact, many knowledgeable football personalities do not even consider these maestro’s of special teams to be “real football players.” Tell that to LSU punter Brad Wing.
As a freshman in 2011, Wing, who has become a fan favorite in Baton Rouge, was named First-Team All-American and First-Team All-SEC, among other accolades. He did not lead the nation in punting average, but the reasons for that lie under a surface of circumstances beyond his control. The ultra-conservative LSU offense was often totally content to punt while well inside the opponent’s territory, due to Wing’s consistent ability to drop punts inside the ten yard line. Opposing offenses then found themselves hemmed in with their backs to the endzone, while facing the fire-breathing Tiger defense, which was certainly not a preferable predicament. These situations often forced turnovers which led to an even shorter field, all courtesy of Wing’s precision punting.
But American football is not the Tiger punter’s native sport. Wing grew up in Melbourne, Australia, and played 15 years of Australian rules football, a highly physical sport closely resembling rugby, before moving to Baton Rouge in high school.
While he has a preference to punt with his left foot, Wing can kick effectively with either leg. He can boom punts in spiral fashion, or end-over-end. He also serves as LSU’s field goal holder, and can threaten the oppostion with capable running and passing skills. He does not shy away from contact or confrontation on the field either, perhaps a testament to the physical nature of his Aussie-rules background. Upon first joining the LSU team and taking a look at his shoulder pads and helmet, Wing joked with his teammates that “We should take these off and play.”
There were times during LSU’s 13-1 SEC Championship season in 2011, when it seemed as though Wing was the most valuable player on the field. In the first LSU-Alabama matchup last November, he turned in an especially MVP-worthy play in the Tigers’ 9-6 win over the Tide. With LSU punting from inside its own five yard line in the fourth quarter, Wing, standing in the endzone, flipped the field as he launched an incredible 73-yard moon shot that flew over Tide return man Marquis Maze’s head, and rolled deep into Alabama territory, knocking the Tide far out of field goal range.
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And perhaps the most jaw-dropping statistic in college football belonged to the LSU punt team. Going into the national title game loss against Alabama, LSU had given up a total of six yards in punt returns over the course of 13 games. Maze eventually broke through with a 49-yard return in New Orleans, but the statistic remains utterly staggering none-the-less.
While some credit has to be given to the coverage unit as a whole, it was largely Wing’s unique punting style that led to opponents’ lack of chances to return kicks. LSU head coach Les Miles gives his 6’3″ punter the freedom to read the opposing return team, and react accordingly. As the opposition attempts to execute either a punt block or a return, Wing has the option to quickly determine where and how he will kick the ball, or if he will kick it at all.
Wing used this approach against Florida last year, and provided one of the most memorable plays of the college football season. After receiving the deep snap, he took a look at the retreating Gator return unit, tucked the ball, and took off, displaying impressive speed as he raced down the sideline and into the endzone. The play was called back, however, as Wing raised his arms mockingly at the Gator defenders as he scored. He was called for an excessive celebration penalty, thus negating the would-be touchdown, drawing an earful from Miles, and sparking national debate all in the process.
Such headline-grabbing attention is not usually thrown in the direction of a punter. But, as the rest of the nation is discovering through his remarkable punting skills, as well as his aggressive approach to the game, Brad Wing is not your usual punter – he is a football player.
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