If you’ve ever watched a football game, at any level, then you’ve surely witnessed a player kicking the football. And just to be clear, we’re not talking about kicking field goals, we’re talking about punting the football.
So what exactly is a punt in football?
A punt is a kick that punters perform by dropping the football with both hands and then kicking the ball before it hits the ground. The goal with any punt is to pin the other team near their end zone or to give your team some breathing room. Punts almost always take place on 4th down.
Punting the ball isn’t as simple as it sounds. The punter is a specialized position, whose sole job (well usually) it is to punt the ball efficiently away. A well-executed punt takes timing, skill, and should back your opponent up against the wall (their end zone).
Punters are also some of the most diverse players on the football field. So without further ado, let’s dive into and breakdown this specialized play.
When Do You Punt in Football?
Assuming you have basic knowledge of the game of football, you know that there are 11 players on offense and defense. Technically, the punt happens when a team is on offense, but it’s not an offensive play at all.
Punting, along with kicking (kickoffs and field goals) are known as “special teams”.
Special teams are a whole different sector of the football universe. Special teams usually has its own players, coaches, and even allotted times during practice to polish up their game.
Don’t let anyone tell you special teams is of lesser importance. Special teams has arguably the most important job on the field.
Executing successful punts, field goal attempts, and kickoffs can be the difference between a winning effort and losing by a few points. One of the most successful coaches of all time, Frank Beamer, former coach of Virginia Tech, made his money by emphasizing special teams.
It was nicknamed “Beamer ball” and he made sure he had the best special teams in the league. It became so popular other coaches started adopting the philosophy.
What Is a Punter in Football?
Since you now know what special teams is, lets clear up one more thing. Usually, past high school, a football team will have two kicking specialists on the team.
There’s the kicker, who’s responsible for kicking field goals and kickoffs after touchdowns, and the punter, whose sole job it is to punt the ball.
While they both use their foot to kick the ball, the positions are very different. A kicker usually only kicks while the ball is static or still. During a field goal, the “holder” catches the ball and puts it on the ground for the kicker to strike.
On kickoffs, the kicker gets to use a “tee” to ensure the ball stays still.
A punter, on the other hand, kicks a moving ball. When the ball is hiked, the long snapper snaps the ball to the punter. He catches it, drops the ball in front of him, and punts the ball with the toe end of his foot.
A good punter can resemble a gymnast with his leg flying almost above his head as he kicks the ball. Punters also have pretty good hands and are usually the holders on field goals.
Punting Rules in Football
While most teams punt on 4th down, no section in the rules requires teams to punt on 4th down. Realistically, teams can punt whenever they want.
When backed-up deep into their own territory, some teams have punted on third down (called a pooch/squib kick) to catch their opponents off guard.
However, most of the time when teams do punt, they elect to do it on 4th down. The ideal time to punt is usually when teams don’t think they can convert a 1st down.
So, if a team has a ball 4th and 9 on their 30-yard line, a punt is most likely going to happen. It’s a great way to flip the field and make your opponent do the work on offense.
A typical punting play should almost always have two things. The punter being one, but the other being the long snapper. The long snapper is almost always different than a regular center.
While a regular center focuses on snapping the ball directly into the quarterbacks’ hands, or at most, snapping in a “shotgun formation” of 5-7 yards, the long snapper has to work at higher distances.
Most punters stand anywhere from 14-17 yards back of the long snapper, meaning the long snapper has to have laser focus.
Not only that but unlike a shotgun snap, which can be a little sloppy, a long snap has to be almost a perfect spiral. It’s important the ball is directly snapped into the punter’s hands or there might be a fumble.
The rest of the punt formation looks like most football plays. Typically, one or two players stand back by the punter to protect him from oncoming players. They are called, easily enough, punt protectors.
Their sole job is to make sure if a lineman is coming towards the punter, that he doesn’t block the punt. There also may be one or two players standing directly behind the line of scrimmage to offer more protection to the punter.
For these interior linemen and protectors, their job is to make sure the ball doesn’t get touched.
But not everyone shares that task. Two faster athletes usually line up off to the sides of the line of scrimmage. These players usually referred to as “gunners” have the job to get to the punt returner as soon as possible.
Whether they get to the ball and down it, or rush to the punt returner and tackle him, they try to prevent the returning team from scoring. Because after all, there’s another side of punts that doesn’t involve punters.
What Is a Punt Return in Football?
While the offensive team is punting, the team on defense has to put out their punt return team. If the punting team’s job is to kick the ball away as far as possible, then the punt return team’s job is to gain that yardage back.
The punt return team has lineman and two guys to block the gunners, but has, what some might call the mirror image of the punter, and that’s the punt returner.
Unlike most other special teams’ guys, he is not relegated to just this position. In some cases, he’s the most explosive player on the field – think Deon Sanders or Desmond Howard. On every punt, the punt returner has three options.
The first is to just let the punt go and hit the ground. This usually happens if the ball isn’t very easy to catch or is going to land very far away from the returner.
This can be a low reward high-risk move. Once the ball hits the ground it’s not dead. It can roll as far as it can until it stops.
The play isn’t dead until a player from the punt team touches the ball. So, if a punt returner decides to let a ball hit the ground at the 30-yard line, there’s a chance it could roll all the way to the 1-yard line, making life much harder for the offense.
The second choice is called the “fair catch”. This is usually an option when players are surrounding or running at the returner. To signal a fair catch, the returner waves his hand in the air.
At this point, the ball is dead after he secures the ball and no player on the punting team can touch him.
Careful though, even with a signaled fair catch, if the ball is bobbled or not secured, the other team can recover it.
The final and most exciting choice is the punt return. This is when the returner decides to catch the ball and make a run for the opponent’s endzone.
With this play, anything can happen. He could get stopped for a 2-yard gain or break away for a mesmerizing punt return touchdown. Punt returns can make or break a game.
What Is a Good Punt in Football?
In essence, distance, distance, and more distance. Since the goal of a punt is to pin the opponent as far back as possible, making the ball go as far as possible is the outcome a punter shoots for.
As the game has progressed and punters have become better over time, it’s no shock to see a guy punt it 50-60 yards in the air.
With a good roll, that could equal about a 70-yard punt! Pretty good for a special teams’ player. With that said, distance isn’t always the top priority. In some specialized situations, a team wants to pin their opponent as close to the endzone as possible.
After all, the ball is marked where it goes out of bounds or stops moving.
In what’s known as a “coffin corner” punt, a very talented punter can aim to have a ball roll out inside the 5-yard line, an incredible feat to see when it’s done correctly. A great punter can kick the ball a mile and place it exactly where he wants to.
What Is a Blocked Punt?
The return team’s goal is usually to get the ball into the punt returner’s hands, but that’s not always the case. Sometimes, they look to block the punt. This is achieved by blocking the ball immediately after a punter kicks it.
Sending more players than normal at the punter is generally the best way to block a punt. Blocked punts can result in a touchdown or at worst, getting the ball in a way better position than if a successful punt was kicked.
But this play doesn’t come without its risks. Like a king in chess, the punter is very protected. Since the act of punting is very venerable, the punter cannot be touched or tackled. Though there are varying degrees of this.
An accidental or light touch may result in the lower “running into the kicker” penalty, only drawing 5-yards. But a rougher or intentional hit could draw a “roughing the punter” which results in 15 yards and, even worse, an automatic first down for the punting team.
What Is a Fake Punt?
Remember when earlier, it was mentioned that the punter’s job is mostly to well, punt? Every once and a while a punter gets to turn into a running back or quarterback with a fake punt.
There isn’t a perfect time to call one, but when it’s well-executed can throw off the other team. Games have been won on a gutsy fake punt call. Essentially, instead of dropping the ball and punting it, the punter takes matters into his own hands.
He can either tuck the ball and run for a first down or drop back and pass it to an eligible receiver. While they don’t happen often, fake punts can result in some of the craziest (and goofiest) plays in football.