This is the first of a two-part series by Andrew LeRay on the Jets' kicking game. Today: The Punters.
Some of the most intriguing aspects of any training camp are the position battles. While punting is an often overlooked aspect of the game, the ability to control field position is essential. With Steve Weatherford gone to the Giants, T.J. Conley and Chris Bryan are fighting for the right to punt for the Jets this season.
"There's been a level of talent, and a level of inconsistency," said special teams coach Mike Westhoff. "I've seen both guys look very good, and there have been some inconsistencies. But yet we see enough of each guy to see what's happening. We'll see how it goes."
Conley is in his third Jets training camp, and third punting competition. The former Idaho Vandal was a standout in the college ranks, leading the nation with a 47.4 gross average in 2008. Clearly possessing a strong leg, he feels he has the ability to be successful in the NFL right now.
"I'm punting better than I was in college," said Conley. "My average was really long in college, but I had a lot of open-field punts where I wasn't up close to the end zone, trying to pin them deep with short punts. Here in the NFL, you also want to get more hangtime, which in turn makes your punts shorter. Don't let the stats fool you."
A three-sport high school standout in Washington state, Conley was recruited by Idaho as a quarterback, and was the Vandals' backup QB in addition to handling the punting duties. Now that he has just one job, he has been able to improve on what he needs most.
"Basically, just consistency," he said. "I've always been able to hit a really good punt, but doing it over and over again is the key."
Consistency is the key for Bryan as well. A native of Melbourne, Australia, he is a former Australian Football League player now trying to make the transition to punting in the NFL. There are currently four former Aussie-rules players on NFL rosters, including former Jets punter Ben Graham.
Thus it is not the first time Westhoff has tried to transition an Australian player to the NFL game.
"It's difficult," said the coach. "When I first saw Bryan punt, his base technique was actually very succinct. He didn't gain a lot of ground, he hit the ball square, and his finish was straight and high. That intrigued me. Now, I haven't seen that consistently, but I have seen it. And when he does it, it's really something special."
Bryan's family tree is full of successful Australian athletes, but he is the first to attempt to play a pro sport in the United States.
"It's completely different," said Bryan. "The games have basically no similarities other than I kick the ball in both of them, and that's probably it. It was a new challenge."
The style of kicking in the two sports is drastically different. Bryan pointed out that the Aussie ball is shaped differently. It's both bigger and rounded at its points.
"We kick a spiral back in Australia," said Bryan. "But it's more long and low. We go for distance. Obviously, here you want to have distance, but hangtime is the major thing."
In his first attempt to make an NFL roster, Bryan was cut in training camp by the Green Bay Packers. He was then signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, only to be cut one month later. Now in his third NFL stop, Bryan has been given another chance, mostly because of his powerful leg.
"When I first saw him, my first impression of him was extremely favorable," said Westhoff. "He just rocketed the ball. The 65-yard bomb is great, if you get some hang time associated with it. Because all of a sudden, a 65-yarder with no one to cover it, you're going to run it back 25 or 30 yards."
Now, with training camp in its third week, Westhoff has seen some separation between the candidates.
"I think, frankly, TJ has moved slightly ahead, probably because he has been less inconsistent," he said. "Chris has, at times, had some of the brightest moments, but then also some of the darkest. The peaks are pretty good, the valleys are poor."
According to Westhoff, after proving the ability to kick it long and high, the candidates need to show it off time and time again.
"I'm looking for a performance that's NFL-caliber on every single ball. That's what I'm trying to find, and I'll continue to do that."`
Saturday: The Placekickers