Richard Kent has seen a lot of playing time this year.
That is great news for the Vanderbilt sophomore, especially since he didn’t play at all last year after his redshirt season in 2008.
At the same time, however, when Kent gets on the field that usually spells bad news for the Commodores and their offense. That is because he is the team’s punter.
Sure, Kent wants to get into the game, but even he admits his 72 punts through the first nine games – the most in the Southeastern Conference – is a little bit too much for his liking.
“As a punter, I like to play because I am on a team,” he said. “But, at the same time, ideally you don’t want to be on the field at all because that means your offense is doing well. I really wanted to punt like maybe four or five times in a game but it didn’t really pan out the way I wanted to.”
Fortunately for Vanderbilt when Kent has been asked to punt he has answered the call. He is averaging 41.7 yards a punt and has 16 punts of 50 yards or longer. In the last three games he has booted at least one punt 60 yards or more, including a career-long 61 yarder against Arkansas.
Not only is he kicking it long but he is getting some air under his punts. Opponents have called for a fair catch 19 times and he has pinned 24 punts inside the 20-yard line. That allows the rest of the punt coverage team to get down the field and snuff out possible returns.
“His hang time – he is able to kick the ball high and we have been able to have a couple gunners like Udom Umoh get down there and cover him and put pressure on him,” Vanderbilt coach Robbie Caldwell said. “So it takes those guys as well and a snapper to put the ball in good place. David Giller has been kind of an unsung guy there that has done that.”
All those factors have led to opponents averaging just 7.3 yards a return.
He punted to LSU’s standout returner Patrick Peterson 10 times back in September. Peterson leads the SEC with 358 return yards but he returned just two for eight yards against Vanderbilt. South Carolina feels his pain. The Gamecocks received nine punts from Kent but could return just three of them – for minus-four yards.
“I tell you that punter from Vandy – I don’t know who he is but Jiminy Christmas,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said after his Gamecocks played Vanderbilt last month. “There was a 60, 70-yard exchange every time he punted.”
But it hasn’t been all blue skies for Kent this year. Last weekend, against Florida, he had two punts blocked, which had never happened to Kent – even in high school in Marietta, Ga.
And against South Carolina he didn’t get the message that a fake punt was called off on a fourth-and-long at the Gamecocks’ 40-yard line. So Kent ran straight ahead but didn’t have any protection in front of him and was hit quickly for no gain.
“It was just a miscommunication. It is a sore subject for me,” Kent said. “I get a lot of grief for it. It is not my proudest moment.”
Despite a couple miscues, Kent, a former walk-on, has made the most of his opportunities. He spent the last two seasons behind All-SEC selection Brett Upson. Kent said it was frustrating to wait for his time but said it allowed him to be more consistent with his punts.
Though he is just one of two punters listed on the roster – redshirt freshman Walt Wepfer is the other – it was reassuring to Kent when he got the word he would be the starter this season.
“It really makes it a lot easier when you know everybody else expects you to do well,” Kent said. “But when you are sitting out there thinking I might not hit this right, you won’t hit it right. But it really made a difference when the coaches finally put their faith in me and said you are starting. I think that is why I did so well.”
And the coaching staff’s decision to go with Kent has more than paid off.
“I can’t say that we had that great of expectations because it was a little bit of an unknown,” Caldwell said. “But what he has done has just exceeded all expectations we have had. It has just been unbelievable. We have been very proud of him.”
And Caldwell would probably be even happier if Kent saw the sidelines more and the field less.
• The injury bug continues to dog a number on the Commodores.
The status of running back Wesley Tate (ankle) is uncertain for this Saturday’s game at Kentucky and Caldwell said “we have to make our plans that he is not going to be there and if he is, it is a bonus.”
Umoh practiced at wide receiver but avoided contact because of a sore shoulder. Defensive end Walker May (ankle) wore an orthopedic boot on his right foot and will not play against Kentucky. His backup, Johnell Thomas, is questionable with a neck injury.
And just a few minutes before practice ended, reserve center James Kittredge rolled his ankle and Caldwell wasn’t sure of his status.
“We can’t seem to go a practice without someone getting nicked up,” Caldwell said. “But we are going to limp on in there and get ready to roll.”
• Kentucky is also a little bruised.
Running back Derrick Locke injured his shoulder on Oct. 9 against Auburn and hasn’t played since. But he told reporters on Wednesday that he would play. Kentucky coach Joker Phillips was more hesitant to give a definite yes but said “I feel a lot better about him playing this week." Locke has 574 rushing yards and seven touchdowns in six games this season.