|DANNY BAUGHER Taking a step forward|
FOXBOROUGH -- In the days before Danny Baugher was scheduled to arrive in New England for training camp last month, his father took him on a trip back in time.
"It was one of his old high school films," Baugher recalled. "That was neat to see considering that it was from more than 30 years ago, and just watching him punt reminded me a lot of myself."
Baugher and his father Erle share a strong bond when it comes to punting.
Erle was a punter, placekicker, and linebacker at Syracuse in the 1970s, and later had tryouts with the Redskins and Eagles. His son played the same positions in high school -- in addition to running back -- and seldom does a day pass when the two don't talk punting. Back home in Phoenix, they often head to Mountain Pointe High School, Baugher's alma mater, and work on the finer points of the skill -- from catch ing the snap, to executing the drop, to striking the ball, to focusing on specific situations.
"He's seen me punt more than anybody, to the point that he can tell me a little thing I'm doing that I don't know I'm doing," said the 23-year-old Baugher.
While Erle knows the ins and outs of his son's punting, Patriots fans are still becoming accustomed to it.
After the Patriots released veteran Josh Miller last Thursday, Baugher suddenly became a leading candidate to hold the job. He's one of two punters on the roster -- Tom Malone of Southern California is the other -- and he seemed to take a positive step in Friday night's exhibition game against the Titans with three punts for a 49.3-yard average and 49-yard net.
Baugher's first attempt, a high 70-yarder that took a favorable bounce before being downed, was his best. The second punt was a 49-yarder that didn't have the optimum hang time, yet was only returned for 1 yard. And the third was a situational punt from the Titans 40 that required the ball to be downed inside the 20, and while Baugher didn't particularly strike it perfectly, it took a favorable bounce before being downed at the 11.
Patriots coach Bill Belichick said consistency will ultimately be what determines the winner of the punting competition. Baugher realizes that is the top priority for any punter, and it's naturally what he's been striving for since tearing his right ACL in the seventh game of his senior season at the University of Arizona in 2005.
The right-footed punter was leading the nation with a 47.5-yard average before the injury, which occurred on a bizarre play against Oregon in which he had a punt blocked, recovered the ball, and was sprinting down the field when mammoth defensive lineman Haloti Ngata (now with the Ravens) tackled him.
Baugher was not healthy enough to punt at the 2006 combine or private workouts, went undrafted, and signed with the Bengals. Yet he never truly challenged for the job -- he still wasn't 100 percent as evidenced by the knee brace he was wearing -- and was released early in training camp. Then, in October, he received a surprise phone call from the Patriots.
"They were interested in possibly having me on the practice squad," he recalled. "My first thought was 'a punter on the practice squad?' I had no idea what I was in for, but I was excited about the opportunity."
The Patriots sent Baugher to NFL Europa this spring and he led the six-team league in punting. Now he's in position to take the final step in becoming the team's full-time punter.
Baugher, whose first name is Erle IV but who is referred to by his middle name, already had a link to the Patriots. His grandfather Erle II, also a punter, played football with the late Bucko Kilroy -- a longtime personnel executive for the team -- in Philadelphia. Kilroy was the godfather to Erle III.
Baugher had a chance to meet Kilroy before he died in July. Now he hopes to make him, and his father, proud.
"My goal is to be consistent and not get ahead of myself on anything," he said. "It's just to show up and be the best I can be for the team when the opportunity arises."