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Archive for Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Keegan: Football’s toughest position

September 5, 2007

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No huddle, get to the line of scrimmage, take your time, check the defense, get a signal from the sideline, then snap the ball. Enlarge video

The longsnapper must accurately send a ball 15 yards to the punter, and then he must quickly deal with the monster trying to get past him.

Making an open-field tackle on a ball-carrier who decides which way he cuts requires great skill.

Kicking a game-winning field goal invites as much pressure as anything a football player does, even though football players don't consider kickers to be football players.

Leaping up to catch a pass over the middle takes toughness from a receiver since he's bound to take a punishing body shot.

A cornerback can get stuck out on an island covering a wide receiver going deep when the pass rush isn't there.

Go for it on fourth down or punt? The head coach has to make the call. No matter what the percentages say, if it doesn't work out, the coach has blown it.

Yet, none of the above challenges ranks as the single most difficult job in football. For Kansas University, that job belongs to Raimond Pendleton. He returns punts.

Chris Harris, promising freshman cornerback for Kansas, played safety and wide receiver and returned kickoffs and punts for Bixby High in Oklahoma a year ago.

"Returning punts is the hardest job in football," Harris said. "You have 11 people breathing down your neck, and the ball is 50 feet in the air. And it matters how people punt. Some punters punt knuckleballs, some people punt spirals. It's the hardest job in football."

Pendleton returned a punt for a touchdown and caught a pass for another in KU's 52-7 opening-week hammering of Central Michigan. It's not as easy as he made it look.

"You're in front of 50,000 people, and the ball is 50 feet in the air," he said. "It's awful hard to judge. I don't think it's for everybody. You've got to be fearless back there, and you've always got to make sure you catch it. That's where you can make the biggest turnover in the game. A punt returner can make a game-changing play."

In either direction.

KU coach Mark Mangino agreed that returning punts is a tough job.

"No. 1, you've got to have courage because you're going to get hit, sometimes as soon as you catch the ball, and it's a guy who's run about 35, 40 yards with a full head of steam, and he's going to clean your clock if he times it up right," Mangino said. "You also have to be able to trust the people in front of you that they are blocking because if they're not, that's one of the reasons why you get hit in the mouth, so you've got to trust the other 10 guys. The next thing is you've got to be able to judge the ball, just like a baseball player. And it's the same thing, judging a punt is a difficult thing, and then after a while, when you get used to it, it becomes second nature. The only thing in baseball is, usually the only person who runs you over is your own shortstop or second baseman. The last thing is understanding after you've caught the ball and now you have your eyes down ... where the leverage of your blocks are."

Pendleton said he hadn't had his clock cleaned yet.

"That's where the fair catch comes in," he said.

Yet, to call a fair catch when one is not needed invites the "coward" label.

It's the toughest job in the roughest sport.

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