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October 30, 2011

Rugby style punting can be dangerous weapon

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Tom Bergeron is the Senior Editor for RivalsHigh.com. Send ideas, questions or comments to TBergero@Yahoo-Inc.com and follow on Twitter.

It didn't take John Ivlow very long to realize his predicament.

"It was the first practice," he said, "we always start with special teams."

The problem: There was nothing special about the punting talent at Bolingbrook (Ill.) High.

Ivlow, in his 10th year as head coach at the school, knew he had a special athlete in dual-threat quarterback Aaron Bailey.

Problem solved.

Bailey picked up a third skill. And Bolingbrook became the last school to join a new trend in high school football: rugby-style punting.

Rugby-style punting starts the same way as traditional punting. That is, the center snaps the ball 12-15 yards back to the punter. From there, everything changes.

The punter rolls to a side (usually the right if he's right-footed) and toward the line. He can go as close as he likes to the line of scrimmage before kicking, giving him extra distance on the kick.

And while the chances for a block - or a tackle - are greater, many coaches are finding it's worth the risk.

Ivlow will tell you, the positives far outweigh the negative. Consider:

It hampers the opponent's return game: "He tucks in and pretends like he's going to run and sucks everyone up and then punts it."

It improves Bolingbrook's punt coverage: "This is not the NFL, there are no rules on too many players down field."

It allows Bolingbrook the chance to run a fake any time it sees an opening: "I think he's picked up a first down on four of the six times he's kept it. He scored a touchdown once."

It gives opponents one more thing to think about: "This is something you have to prepare for. And any extra time you have to spend in practice on this is less time you can spend on something else."

It doesn't always give opponents time to get their punt return team out: "We use our same offensive protection."

Ivlow feels there is no special way to defend the style.

"If they try to overload one side we can just run to the other," he said. "They have to respect our options."

And, best of all, they have to respect Bailey's right to kick the ball.

Dallas Jackson and Sam Farber discus rugby punts.
Just because a punter looks like a runner - and can become a runner - he can't be hit like a runner if he's punting.

Craig Anderson of the Illinois High School Association says rugby-style punters are protected the same as traditional punters.

"If he maintains possession he's obviously a runner, but as soon as he assumes a position to kick the ball he maintains a little bit of guard," Anderson said. "They can't just come in and blast him because he's taking a few steps to the right and forward."

Ivlow says he informs the officials before each game of his punting style. And while it's nice for them to know, at this point, it's nothing they haven't seen before.

The question is: Will Bolingbrook fans continue to see this style of punting?

They will for at least one more year as Bailey is just a junior. After that, Ivlow says he'll let his personnel dictate his play.

"We'd much rather have a punter that sits back there and boots it 50 yards," he said with a laugh. "This is improvisation. But it's our best bet to get the ball down field."

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