As far as punters go, it’s difficult to generate much enthusiasm, regardless of how talented a player might be. Frankly, quality punting is more of a concern for teams with bad offenses, and barring a hemorrhaging of touchdown returns, if you’re so worried about the quality of your punting game, chances are there are bigger issues surrounding your team.
Former LSU punter Brad Wing, many would suggest, displayed the talent that would almost generate some enthusiasm over a punter coming out of college. So why did he not only go undrafted, which is by no means uncommon for specialists, but not even hook up with a team since declaring for the draft in 2012?
The answer to that is simple, and well-documented. Wing had a series of off-field issues, including physical confrontations and failed drug tests, as well as unsportsmanlike displays on the field and directed at coaches. He was even suspended from his team’s bowl game in 2012 for his antics.
Sounds like a classic reclamation project for the Cincinnati Bengals—so then why is he with the Pittsburgh Steelers?
According to general manager Kevin Colbert, it’s because he’s grown up. In fact, while speaking to the media yesterday at the Combine, he went so far as to say that Wing doesn’t have anything to prove with regards to his demeanor, adding that the team would never have signed him if they felt he was a character concern.
Wing, recently married and with a child, was described by Colbert as an underclassmen who wasn’t “ready for the challenge” of being a professional when he came out in the draft, which is a theme that he has been expounding upon this past week, and is an interesting topic worthy of broader discussion.
This draft will include a record number of underclassmen, and according to Colbert, that could result in not only one of the most talented classes in recent memory, but also one of the most immature and mentally ill-prepared.
With less and less incentive to staying in college as NFL salaries rise, more and more players are choosing to start their professional careers as early as possible, foregoing unnecessary risks of injury and dancing through the academic charade that is the ‘student-athlete’ ideal of college athletics.
Is this resulting in a rise in immaturity among young players, who are more frequently entering the league at 20 and 21 years of age? Was Wing one of those players, and he simply needed some more time to mature?
Regardless of that, perhaps Wing will now be viewed in a different light going forward, perhaps even as a favorite to be the punter this season, whereas previously it seemed everybody was just waiting for him to register a blip on the radar that would tug on his short leash and get him sent packing from Latrobe. But make no mistake, he won’t be handed the job; you can bet on the Steelers bringing in competition for him, and he’ll have to earn his way.
The Steelers haven’t had much quality punting over the past decade, and 2013 was perhaps the nadir of this recent run of futility. Between Zoltan Mesko and Mat McBriar, the two veteran punters combined to produce the second-worst net punting average in the league, and Drew Butler from the year before was no phenom either.
Perhaps all I really mean to express is that it would be great to have a genuinely quality punter for once, a punter that regularly pins his opponent deep in their own territory by achieving both distance and hang time and pairing that with directional aptitude. Maybe a little less Chris Gardocki and Mitch Berger and a little more Andy Lee or Johnny Hekker.
By no means am I saying that Wing will be that guy. But at least he appears to have the talent to give it a go, which is more than can be said for the latest collection of rejected kickers added to the scrap heap on top of Daniel Sepulveda and Jeremy Kapinos.