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By LARRY VAUGHT
Landon Foster certainly would seem to have the versatility to be a productive punter and/or kicker at Kentucky based on what he did for Independence High School in Thompson Station, Tenn. He was a first-team Class AAAAAA kicker by the Tennessee Sports Writers’ Association. He made 11 of 16 field goals as a senior with a long of 49 and averaged 41.3 yards per punt. Fifty of his 56 kickoffs went for touchbacks and four of the others were on-side kicks. He was named his team’s most valuable player and was ranked as the No. 8 kicker in the nation by Scout.com and the No. 12 kicker and the 10th best prospect in the state of Tennessee by SuperPrep.
During a recent visit to Nashville, I made the short drive over to his hometown and spent about an hour with the future UK player. He shared these insights (as well as more on videos that will be posted at vaughtsviews.com in the days ahead):
Question: What does a punter do during practice to stay busy?
Foster: “We had another kicker here who is about to start kicking for us. We would go to the game field, do some drills and play some punt golf. I am not sure what they call it at Kentucky, but you start off 20 yards and punt it and can’t drop it. All the snappers and punters play that. Ryan Tydlacka was giving me problems about being on the winning team. You just have to work on your technique. You can’t go into practice and kick 200 balls. That’s what I did my sophomore year and ended up injuring my knee. I played soccer still and it was awful. You have to just work on technique and not kick a thousand balls.”
Question: How did a punter from Tennessee decide Kentucky was right for him?
Foster: “I went to camp twice at Kentucky. My dad came up with me the second time and we talked to (former Tennessee quarterback) Tee Martin and asked him why he was coaching at Kentucky. He said the people. Without a doubt, that is it. Coach Phillips was up front the whole time. (Special teams) Coach (Greg) Nord is one of the funniest guys I know. He is random, but so funny and practices are fun. Coach Steve Pardue is my recruitng coach and knows so many people around here. He knows my geometry teacher’s husband. He knows the high school coach in Franklin who is our biggest rival. He knew tons of people around here, so that was odd. He is a great guy too. Very personable.
“Also the opportunity to come in early and maybe play. Nothing will be given to me. You have to go in, do your work during camp and earn the spot but just the opportunity is there and why not take it. The last thing is the atmosphere. I loved it up there. The campus is great. Medical is great up there. Just everything about it seemed right.”
Question: Do you know much about the success current Green Bay punter Tim Masthay had at Kentucky?
Foster: “No, not really. I had heard of him because Green Bay won a Super Bowl. It was funny right when I went up for my second camp at Kentucky and I was watching on ESPN the Packers getting their rings and think it was two days later they actually flew Tim down to work with me. He brought his ring and I got to meet him there. It is odd because Craig was the last punter to punt for the Packers when they won the Super Bowl, so I know the last two punters who have won the Super Bowl with the Packers. It was great and he’s a great guy.”
Question: What do you hope to improve on or learn more about during the summer before preseason camp starts?
Foster: “Obviously, learn my way around the campus and just get used to college. Being on your own and so forth. Football-wise, obviously get stronger and more consistent – any kicker or punter will say that. Even the pro guys. I tell everyone that says you hit a 60-yard field goal and should be in the pros. The difference is that in the pros they can hit that 99 times out of 100. In college, you hit 50 out of 100. A guy going Division I out of high school can hit it 25 out of 100. Your consistency is key. We can hit the same ball as most NFL guys and they can hit it over and over without shanking one or dropping inside. That is the biggest difference.”
Question: What about comments from Phillips and Nord that you “sound” like a punter?
Foster: “You can tell. If you hit the sweet spot, it sounds great. You can tell when people try to create the spiral by side swiping it and kicking it off the side of their foot and it doesn’t sound as solid. When you drop it right, hit it right and follow through, then it sounds like a boom. It really does. You can just tell. You can close your eyes and tell.”
Question: Is that the best compliment a coach can give a punter?
Foster: “I would say so. And being clutch. That was a huge compliment and didn’t surprise me. I remember my first camp that I went to and I didn’t even kick. We were supposed to kick and I ended up punting all day. Coach Phillips would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with me and say, ‘Don’t shank this one’ and I would hit it right and he would say, ‘One more.’ It just kept going. Probably did that 10 to 15 times and he finally said, ‘Alright. You are good.’”
Question: What about academics? Do you enjoy your class work?
Foster: “I have always enjoyed school. Certain subjects I don’t enjoy, but I am a big math and science guy. I was thinking about going pre-med but after talking to Pat Simmons, a walk-on kicker who stopped this year to focus on med school, I think I am going in undecided to make sure that is what I want to do. I have to know if I want to devote most of my time to that or do I want to go a different route. I have always enjoyed academics and school. It has been a blessing here.”
Question: Can a punter think too much, especially a punter who likes math and science like you do?
Foster: “Not too much. I try not to. That is what happens with a lot of kickers. When we watch film, it is completely different from how other players watch film. We always see little things we will work. You can’t work on everything at once. You have to work on one thing and once you get that down, it is muscle memory, and then you can move on to the next thing and take it a step at a time.”
By LARRY VAUGHT
When Tennessee kicker Landon Foster came to Kentucky’s summer camp, UK special teams coach Greg Nord noticed him right away.
“I think the way he handled the pressure in camp really stood out. The first thing I was looking at was there was a guy punting the ball better than everybody else and looks and sounds like a big-time punter, said Nord. Then he handled the pressure pretty well. You would go do little things to try and put pressure on him or bring a guy over and say, Hey, lets see which one of you two guys can punt better. Just see how he would rise up to the competition. Then you find out the tremendous success his family has and he has and how well hes thought of in the school. Hes a guy you want in your program.
“Coach (Jerry) Claiborne kind of instilled in (UKcoach) Joker (Phillips) and I as young coaches, and Joker has carried it into his program and I believed it all along, that one of the top things you better do is recognize a winner. Certainly you have to start off by finding guys that are good enough to win, but there is something about a winner that can put you over the top.”
Foster was a first-team kicker by the Tennessee Sports Writers Association. He made 11 of 16 field goals as a senior with a long of 49 yards and averaged 41.3 yards per punt. He also had 50 of his 56 kickoffs go for touchbacks, and four of the six that did not were onside kicks.
He was rated the No. 8 kicker in the nation by Scout.com and No. 10 overall prospect in the state of Tennessee by SuperPrep. Like former UKpunter Tim Masthay, who is now with the Green Bay Packers, Foster also played soccer.
Phillips said Nord told him that Foster could make it rain with his punting.
“You know an SEC punter when you hear him, you know an SEC kicker when you you don’t have to see it, you can close your eyes and walk past and it’s going to sound different than a peewee punter,” Phillips said. “This guy is an SEC punter. High character kid, intelligent, right look in his eyes. Room lights up when he comes in.”
UK has had a series of talented punters Glenn Pakulak, Masthay and Ryan Tydlacka in recent years and Nord hopes Foster can be another one.
He has a lot of work to do to be mentioned in the breath of those guys. But Tydlacka did as a young guy being measured against Masthay and I am sure Tim did being measured against some former kickers because we have had some good ones here, Nord said. I hope he can compete or even win a job as a freshman because that would mean he is really as good as we thought if he beats out some of the guys we have here. If not, then it will make the other guys here play as well as they can play. Competition is one thing that makes everyone better.
“He has done some kickoffs and kicked some field goals. We are going to start him off and use him exclusively punting, but as he gets older, he will be trained like all our guys are. Tydlacka was trained to be a kickoff/PAT backup. Same thing with Joe Mansour and Craig McIntosh.”
McIntosh returns as UK’s field goal kicker while Mansour handled kickoffs. However, Mansour came into the program highly-touted as a kicker but has been used only on kickoffs his first two seasons.
“Joe is getting bigger. He is maturing and learning how to handle big-time college football,” Nord said. “A lot was placed on that young guy’s shoulders coming in as recognized as he was and he was forced into a position of being the guy so to speak and thats a lot for a young guy to handle. Thats one thing that Landon will have to do is handle those early expectations and weather the storm of being a rookie, which is not as easy as everyone thinks.”
Foster attended a second UK camp when Masthay happened to be in town and Nord said the Green Bay punter told him that Foster was a big-time punter.
Phillips is not overly concerned about turning the punting duties over to Foster, who averaged 41.3 yards per punt as a senior. He remembers doing that with Masthay and hearing the talk about how bad he is before Masthay turned into a star.
“He was a little slow getting the ball off as a freshman and now all he does is have a Super Bowl ring,” Phillips said. “We signed Landon Foster because he is a talented guy and we are going to give him an opportunity to be our punter. He will get reps in practice and have a chance to prove he deserves the job. But we are expecting him to be our guy. You dont take a punter or kicker or JC (junior college) player without expecting him to be your No. 1 guy.”