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VOL. 36 | NO. 42 | Friday, October 19, 2012

Hentrich helps keep 'best punter in the league’ grounded

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The one element of the Tennessee Titans season that has been dependable thus far this season has been special teams.

Kicker Rob Bironas, who won the nationally televised game against the Pittsburgh Steelers with a field goal as time expired, naturally deserves much of the credit.

New kick and punt returner Darius Reynaud is a nice story, having been out of the league last year only to become an impact player this season. He was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for September.

But the player who might be having the best season of all is punter Brett Kern.

Punters often go unnoticed in the NFL. Their very presence on the field signifies failure, as in the offense not being able to generate a first down.

But Kern, through six games, is having an exceptional season. The first number that jumps off the stat sheet is his 48.5 yards per punt, gross average. But that tells only a part of the story.

Kern also leads the NFL with a 44.5-yard net average, a stat that measures the distance of the punt minus the number of yards it is returned by the opposing team. Kern also has dropped 12 of his 30 punts inside the 20-yard line, helping the Titans rank No. 2 overall in terms of average punt return yards against.

“The two stats you probably look at is your net, which is really important,” Kern says. “It’s more of a team thing -- what are we doing after the return, and the average per return yardage.

“Those two stats are probably the most important. I take a lot of pride in that.”

The Titans were having major punting issues when they claimed Kern off waivers from the Denver Broncos in 2009. Craig Hentrich, who had held the job since 1998, had gone on injured reserve in what he had already decided would be his final NFL season. Interim punter Reggie Hodges, now with Cleveland, was struggling as Hentrich’s replacement.

When the Broncos surprisingly decided to drop Kern, the Titans pounced. He has held the job ever since.

“I knew he had that kind of talent as soon as he got here. Has an unbelievably strong leg,” Hentrich says. “There was really nowhere else for him to go except up, and he is doing an unbelievable job.”

Brett Kern’s puntining has a been a bright spot for the Tennessee Titans this season. He leads the NFL with 44.5 net yards per kick.

-- Ap Photo/Frederick Breedon

Hentrich, who runs a kicking camp, remains close friends with Kern, who actually lives in his neighborhood.

“We probably talk once a week, usually after almost every game. He watches almost every game. We just talk football-wise, and he asks how things are going and how I’m hitting it,” Kern says.

“I kind of give him a little update and a crash course of what’s been going on. He’s always able to give me encouragement. And he tells me to keep it up. And we talk about families, because we just live down the street from each other.”

Hentrich confirms the relationship is about more than kicking.

“If he’s having issues, he might call, and also we just keep in touch as friends. Our families are fairly close, and we have a good relationship,” Hentrich says.

Back to punting, Kern says he is taking a different approach this year, and it’s working well thus far.

“I’m just more or less taking it game by game and not worrying about the end season results. I’m just focusing on each punt and enjoying the moment, I guess more, and just going out there and having fun,” Kern explains. “I’m just a little more relaxed out there.”

With the Titans having struggling, Kern has had more opportunities than he would like, and in particular more chances to hit longer punts and perhaps flip field position.

“The situations we’ve been in this year, we’ve been a little bit more backed up more than normal,” Kern says. “Knowing if I can go out there and hit a really good punt and get the direction down outside the numbers, there’s a very good chance that that’s gonna flip the field position. But it’s not like you’re going out there and trying to kill the ball.”

Hentrich takes the success Kern has been having a step farther, saying he believes his successor is the best at what he does in the entire NFL right now.

“You’ve got two different types of punters in his league,” Hentrich explains. “There are directional punters, and then there are what we call bangers, who just like to hit it far.

“Brett is good at both, and when you can match up hang time and direction with distance like he can, he, in my opinion, is the best punter in the league at this point.”

Terry McCormick covers the Titans for TitanInsider.com and is the AFC blogger for National Football Post.

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