Putting best foot forward

Ravens: Kyle Richardson has parlayed an unexpected opportunity to punt in high school into a career in the NFL.

September 29, 1999|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

If the first-string punter on his high school football team had not been injured during his senior year, Kyle Richardson might be working with an advertising firm today.

Out of necessity, the all-conference receiver/defensive back tried something new for his Farmington (Mo.) High team. Little did Richardson know he had stumbled into a new career.

Before graduating from Farmington, Richardson strongly considered playing junior college basketball, but Arkansas State was looking for a walk-on to stick around as a punter. It was the only four-year college with a potential scholarship offer. Richardson felt he had to take the bait.

"They had 25 walk-ons at this kick-o-rama, and they were trying to find a punter out of about eight of us," Richardson recalled. "One of the coaches told us that only two of you will still be here by the time you're a senior. And he was right."

Richardson went on to finish with a graphic design degree and the most punts and the most yardage in school history. And the Arkansas State survivor is now thriving in the NFL as the Ravens punter.

Richardson, 26, scratched the pro surface in 1997 with short stints in Miami and Seattle, then made a dent in Baltimore last year by beating out veteran Greg Montgomery after a spirited battle that went down to the final preseason game.

With each passing week in the 1999 season, Richardson appears to be the punter of the future here. The Ravens' sputtering offense certainly has kept him busy.

Richardson is tied for the AFC lead with 21 punts after three games. He is averaging 42.9 yards per kick and 36.9 net yards -- which is the all-important difference between gross average and return yards surrendered.

Richardson must be careful not to punt too far or too low, thereby out-kicking his coverage unit. Had the Ravens punt coverage not been poor in the team's first game, that number would be closer to 40.

"Never sign a punter and put a bonus clause in his contract for leading the league in gross average. Net average is what is critical," Ravens special teams coach Russ Purnell said. "Kyle has been effective for us. He's helped the defense with field position. He's getting a little bit better each week. I think he's going to be a good punter in this league for a long time."

Richardson has all of the tools. At 6 feet 2, 210 pounds, he can drive the ball equally well for distance, height and touch. No punter in the NFL has dropped more punts inside the opponents' 20. Richardson has done it on 11 of his 21 attempts. He has given away only two touchbacks.

"There is a fine line between that and shooting [a punt] off the side of my foot and through the end zone [for a touchback]," Richardson said. "It's definitely been a good year so far that way. I had some trouble with that last year. I want to become more of a well-rounded punter."

"Given the way we've been offensively, he's had to bear up under that," Ravens coach Brian Billick said of Richardson. "Some punters can't punt a lot. They just don't have the leg for it. Kyle has done it. He's got a good demeanor, a good work ethic and he's a good athlete."

For more proof, watch Richardson do his job in punt coverage. Did you see him chop down St. Louis return man Az-Zahir Hakim to save a touchdown in the season opener? Richardson is big enough, fast enough and has enough defensive background to be a tackling threat.

Richardson's professional breakthrough came after he survived those short trips to Miami and Seattle in 1997, where he was filling in for injured first-stringers.

"I didn't know anybody in those places, and nobody cared to know me. I was on an island no matter where I was," Richardson said. "I learned a lot about the business and about myself that year."

Starting his first season with a roster spot in 1998 was another turning point. Getting through a terrible start -- fueled by some memorable, costly mistakes by former long snapper Harper Le Bel -- served as Richardson's baptism. But he recovered to finish strong.

Richardson dropped nearly one-third of his punts inside the 20, opponents called for 24 fair catches -- major improvements over Montgomery -- and Richardson finished fourth in the league with a 38.3-yard net average.

"Once I made the team, I had 17 weeks in front of me. The whole challenge last year was getting through the season," he said. "It was an up-and-down year, but I got to a level of assurance that I could do this."

Richardson is signed through 1999. When asked about his future, he said he would rather just think about doing his job in Atlanta on Sunday.

"The average career is three years in this game. Each day I go out there to work, knowing I could be gone tomorrow," he said. "I don't take anything for granted."

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