It’s rare for a freshman at any position to walk onto a Southeastern Conference campus as the favorite to win a starting job. But that is exactly what UK freshman punter Landon Foster did this fall.
Punter was among the most consistent positions on the field for UK in 2011, with head coach Joker Phillips at times describing senior Ryan Tydlacka as one of the team’s most-valuable players. Tydlacka averaged 43.6 yards per punt as a senior. His graduation left big shoes to fill.
With neither junior Joe Mansour or redshirt freshman Jay Wilmott seizing the job in spring practice, many fans expected Foster to immediately step into the starting lineup. Phillips did little to quiet those rumors.
Landon Foster. (Photo from UK Athletics)
“You have to be a great athlete to be a punter, and that’s what this kid is,” Phillips said on media day. “He was a guy that played other positions, and therefore he’s a pretty good athlete. You’ve got to be a good athlete to be a punter, and we feel like we’ve signed the next great one.”
Tydlacka was part of a string of impressive punting seasons for UK. He and current Green Bay Packers punter Tim Masthay have combined for all but three of UK’s 375 punts in the last seven seasons.
Foster thinks he’s ready to follow that example.
“I don’t really feel too much pressure,” he said. “Obviously just come in and do what I know how to do.”
Foster has even gotten some first-hand tips from Tydlacka and Masthay.
“We talk about school and talk about punting,” he said. “We talk about just technique and everything. Everyone has a different technique, so they just try to give you a few tips here and there, whether it’s windy or not.”
If UK was looking to avoid comparisons between Foster and Tydlacka, the person in charge of assigning numbers to the freshmen didn’t get the memo. This season Foster will wear No. 9, just like his predecessor.
“I had a choice and actually tried to be a couple numbers, but they weren’t there when I got here,” he said. “I thought I had 29 because I have locker No. 29, but then we got our jerseys for the women’s clinic and I was No. 9. Not too bad, coming after Ryan.”
Mansour also signed with UK as a highly touted kicker but has yet to make a significant impact beyond kickoff team in college. Early in camp, Phillips said both Mansour and Foster had a shot at the job, but said the freshman already has an advantage in certain areas.
“The young freshman is probably a little bit faster right now,” he said. “We all know the key is how fast you can get it off. You can send a guy free up the middle and if you can get it off fast enough he can get there. We just got to continue to develop those guys in getting it out quick. Right now, he’s as fast as we’ve ever had.”
On Tuesday, Phillips admitted he had chosen a starter but declined to specify who that player was while talking to the media. Phillips generally has avoided naming specific freshmen during camp.
“I feel better about our depth at the position too, because the guys that were on campus have improved also,” he said. “We feel good about that.”
Foster averaged 41.3 yards per punt as a senior at Independence High School in Franklin, Tenn. He was named his team’s most valuable player and first-team all-state in Class 6A by the Tennessee Sports Writers’ Association.
Part of the coaching staff’s comfort in praising Foster even before he has seen his first collegiate game comes from their relationship during the recruiting process. Phillips and special teams coach Greg Nord brought Foster on campus multiple times to see him kick.
“We want to see him in person, whether it’s kicking or throwing the football,” Phillips said of the recruiting process for kickers and quarterbacks. “I think you can be misled by film with the quarterback position and the kicking position.
“He came here twice. We said come back, we want to see how you do at the next kicking camp. So he lined up — I stood right beside him — I wanted to see how he handled the pressure. Coach Nord screamed and yelled at him.”
Nord has been impressed by Foster early in camp.
“He’s done as good as a true freshman coming in here and handling the competition,” Nord said. “He hasn’t backed down or shied away from any of it. It’s been fun to watch him compete.”
If the UK coaching staff has its way Foster could be just part of an improved special teams unit in 2012.
The Wildcats got almost nothing out of their return game last season. UK punt returners averaged just 1.8 yards per return in 19 returns last season. Their long return of the year went for 11 yards.
Phillips has repeatedly alluded to a couple of special returners during fall camp. One of those players is sophomore wide receiver Demarco Robinson.
“I’m excited about the confidence that Demarco Robinson is back there catching them with,” he said. “That was a problem last year with him, losing his confidence and us losing confidence in him too. If you drop two, you’re going to lose confidence in a guy, and you’ve got to find somebody who can (catch).”
Robison thinks he has put those problems behind him.
“I’ve been catching a lot of balls with the punters all summer,” he said. “I’ve been coming out here, catching off the jug mating, just making it my second nature to catch.”
Robinson could be joined in the returning game by redshirt freshmen receiver Daryl Collins and true freshman receiver Demarcus Sweat among others.
Phillips has stressed the need for good field position during camp, noting how difficult it is to score on long sustained drives.
Foster and the returners figure to be key in meeting that goal. While he said the largest crowd he’s every kicked in front of was probably 5,000 or 6,000 people, Foster is not worried about the adjustment to college football.
“Coach Nord watched me punt one day and said, ‘You look good. Just come in and do what you do,’” Foster said. “Punting the ball is punting a ball. That’s nice to know.”
During UK’s fall football camp, KyForward sports editor Jon Hale will be providing a position-by-position look at some new faces and storylines to watch for the 2012 UK football season.. Previous stories in the series include features about the quarterbacks, defensive linemen, tailbacks, wide receivers, linebackers and tight ends.