Auburn punter helps team gain field-position advantage
September 24, 2012
One of the most iconic scenes in Southeastern Conference football comes just before kickoff at Auburn home games, when a live eagle circles above the field as navy- and orange-clad fans cheer and chant.
These days, the eagle isn’t the only thing taking flight at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Junior punter Steven Clark became the first Ray Guy Award finalist in Auburn history last year, thanks in large part to high-flying punts that hang in the air like hot air balloons. Clark forced 34 fair catches on 72 kicks in 2011 and allowed opponents only 64 yards in returns.
“I could probably kick them with a little less hang time and make them go a little farther,” Clark said. “But to me, it’s just natural to kick it how I do.”
Auburn hopes Clark’s moonshots can help swing field position Saturday when second-ranked LSU brings to town one of the nation’s stingiest defenses. Kickoff at Jordan-Hare is 6 p.m.
“I’m looking forward to this game and seeing how I can help my team out,” Clark said.
Clark will match punts Saturday against LSU sophomore Brad Wing, whose booming left leg landed him on several preseason All-America teams. But it was Clark who last year earned All-SEC honors.
Known more as a man of great precision than eye-popping power, Clark put 33 punts inside the 20 and nine more inside the 10 while averaging 40.8 yards per kick.
“That’s what makes him one of the best punters in the SEC. His ability to get hang time, which allows his coverage unit to get down there really fast,” said LSU receiver Jarvis Landry, who backs up Odell Beckham Jr. as the Tigers’ primary return man.
Clark has been up to his usual tricks so far this year, having allowed only one return out of 15 punts — for seven yards.
But the 6-foot-5, 232-pounder from Kansas City, Mo., said he aims to improve an average that continues to hover in the 40-yard range. He said the goal is to be closer to 50 yards on his punts with a hang time near 5 seconds.
“If I hit them well, they will go just as far as anybody else’s,” Clark said.
LSU special teams coach Thomas McGaughey said Clark’s average is a reflection of Auburn’s strategy — not the punter’s leg strength.
“His leg is as strong as anybody in the country,” McGaughey said. “He’s a big-ball hitter when he wants to be. I’m sure it’s part of their strategy to just hang that thing up there as high as they can and let their speed go down and cover.”
Clark began punting the day he went out for the freshman football team at his high school, then worked his way up to varsity punter the following year. He emerged as a Division I prospect during stops at various kicking camps.
During the fall of his senior year, he attended the Auburn-West Virginia game on a recruiting visit and fell in love with the Auburn campus.
But because of torrential downpours that delayed kickoff by an hour, the pregame flying of the eagle was canceled.
So Clark, who is in the locker room with teammates when the eagle flies, has never witnessed one of the school’s most famous traditions. He missed his one chance on that recruiting trip.
“I look forward to, once I graduate, being able to come back and finally check that out,” Clark said.
Maybe then he can decide who gets more air: the eagle, or him.