Punting is anything but a breeze
Seattle Times staff reporter
You know how it goes with recruiting visits in football: The filets are always going to be this thick. The parties are always going to be this much fun. The women are always going to be this nice.
Undoubtedly, if Derek McLaughlin had taken an early visit to Washington, he'd have heard that Seattle gets only 38 annual inches of rainfall.
At least he could have sifted through that fluff. But Washington's freshman punter from Mesa, Ariz., didn't take that early visit.
"I knew it rained up here," McLaughlin said the other day. "But I didn't know about the wind."
Ah, the wind. A punter not knowing about the wind at Husky Stadium is like a car buyer unaware of second stickers.
Husky Stadium is a punter's graveyard. It's not for the meek nor those who want to see their names in the NCAA top 20. Dropback quarterbacks at Nebraska have as much chance of big numbers.
Ryan Fleming, who preceded McLaughlin as UW punter for three years, used to hear it all the time, from people like Nick Harris, the ex-All-American at Cal.
"I was good friends with him," says Fleming, now a Bellevue financial planner. "He always came up to me after the game and said, 'How in the world do you kick here?' "
The answer is, you don't. Fleming is the only Husky since Channing Wyles in 1990 to average as high as 40 yards over a full season. Fleming went for 40.2 in 1999, helped by a school-record 73-yard kick.
That one, naturally, came on the road, against Brigham Young. So, too, was McLaughlin's 74-yard record-breaker this year, at California.
"I always looked forward to playing the road games," Fleming confesses.
Washington has traditions of quarterbacks, tight ends and alumni lining the field with lettered blankets at homecoming. But not punters. John Werdel, fifth in the Pac-10 in 1993, is the only Husky to finish in the top half of the conference in the past decade.
In a bit of kindly paternalism, Fleming's father Tom, chairman of the UW biostatistics department, used to chart how Ryan did head-to-head with other punters, home and away, and the numbers were a lot more favorable.
Seahawks punter Jeff Feagles ranks Husky Stadium, San Francisco's 3Com Park and Chicago's Soldier Field as the toughest places he has punted.
"I can't figure it out," Feagles said, referring to the wind at the UW. "It drives me crazy, it drives our special-teams coach crazy, and I'm sure it drives (Coach) Mike Holmgren crazy."
That's why McLaughlin's 42.5-yard average, second in the Pac-10, is notable. He had been hoping for a 45-yard average as a freshman, but began to get some alarming vibes from people like Nick Murphy, the Arizona State punter, whom he knows from his Phoenix-area roots.
"I'm going to Washington," McLaughlin told Murphy last year.
"Watch out for the wind," Murphy replied. "That's the worst place to punt of any I've ever played."
Blithely, McLaughlin came north to a couple of postcard-style Seattle days in mid-August. Then the Huskies went south to The Evergreen State College, and so did the weather.
"Rain, the field is saturated, you step up to your ankle in water," McLaughlin recalled. "I said, 'Coach, when is this gonna stop? I'm not having fun up here.' "
The weather improved. But when the team moved back to Seattle, McLaughlin found out about Husky Stadium and the winds that blow one way while the flags point another.
"You're never going to lead the nation," McLaughlin says, "kicking in Husky Stadium."
Of course, the Huskies informed him of all these punting perils when he was being recruited?
"Not really," McLaughlin said. "They didn't tell me that."
It's possible that had McLaughlin seen Husky Stadium on a Stephen King kind of day that he might not have chosen Washington, especially if USC had followed up its early recruiting contact with him. Asked if his decision would have been the same, McLaughlin gives a long pause.
"Probably," he says. "I really enjoy the atmosphere up here."
In the best tradition of UW punters, McLaughlin has assumed the proper stiffer-upper-lip posture.
"This is a good place to test your skills," he says. "Find me a place that's harder to kick than here. If you can kick well in Husky Stadium, everything else is going to be easy.
"I'm kind of grateful for it. We're up here all the time dealing with it. We can get rid of our worst shanks in practice. Being up here helps prepare you for the worst."
McLaughlin has had two punts blocked, one against Michigan, due in part to a launch that was slightly slow.
But his 74-yard boot against Cal might have been the biggest play of Washington's season, coming with him backed into the end zone and the Huskies down 14-0.
"I want the defense to say, 'We can count on Derek to do a good job,' " McLaughlin said. "I don't want them going, 'The punter's going in, cross your fingers.' "
McLaughlin came by his punting skills almost accidentally. Son of a career military man, he found himself in Mesa for his junior year, where the kicker at Mountain View High was Brian Golladay. Kickers and punters have a natural kinship, distanced from the rest of the team during most practice drills.
Golladay had attended a couple of kicking and punting camps and shared his knowledge with McLaughlin.
"He had a leg," said Golladay, the placekicker at Lewis and Clark College in Portland. "I don't think he knew exactly how to punt."
Before he signed a letter of intent, McLaughlin initially proposed to Washington coaches that he be allowed to take a two-year Mormon mission after his freshman season. They negotiated, and the plan is for McLaughlin to take it after his sophomore year, returning in the spring of 2005.
McLaughlin returns Saturday night to the thin desert air of Sun Devil Stadium, where his high school won a state championship in 1999. A year later, he opened eyes with a 47-yard average at Mountain View.
"I heard people say, 'His stats are inflated,' " McLaughlin said. " 'No way he averaged 47 yards a kick.'
"I don't think it's outrageous. And I don't think it's unattainable, even up here."
That could be rookie enthusiasm. He hasn't seen November in Seattle.
Bud Withers can be reached at 206-464-8281 or email@example.com.