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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Zastudil Solidifies Punting Game



By Steve King, Staff Writer

August 20, 2006

Few fans at Browns training camp pay attention to them.

They’re off on another field, sometimes working and other times just standing and watching the rest of the team practice.

In terms of providing excitement, the two punters, two kickers and long snapper Ryan Pontbriand aren’t exactly riveting.

But that’s OK, for those specialists all know that what they do on Sundays has as much – if not more, in some cases – to do in terms of determining whether the Browns win or lose the game than the efforts of the offense and defense.

Pontbriand is right on target with his snaps. Place kicker Phil Dawson is the second-most accurate field-goal kicker in NFL history.

And now the Browns have a difference maker at punter again in Dave Zastudil. Listed last on the veterans alphabetical roster because of his last name, the product of Bay Village (Ohio) High School and Ohio University will nonetheless have a front-and-center role as he looks to solidify a part of the team that’s been shaky ever since the reliable Chris Gardocki was let go following the 2003 season.

And though camp isn’t over until next Thursday, Zastudil has proven the Browns did the right thing when they signed him as a free agent from the Baltimore Ravens in the offseason.

His kicking has been extremely crisp. The kicks are high and long, and he’s been able to place them in the coffin corner. Yes, there have been some shanks – you can’t avoid it – but they are few and far between.

The last two years, Browns punters – even in practice – struggled to find any kind of consistency. There never seemed to be even as few as three good punts in a row. Shanks were ever present.

That was a sizeable problem. Trying to rebuild the team, the Browns needed every yard they could get. Winning the field-position battle was crucial to them having a chance to win the game.

Zastudil will help them do both. He is coming off a career-best average of 43.5 yards per punt in 2005. In his final game as a Raven – their 20-16 loss to the Browns at Cleveland last Jan. 1. in the regular-season finale – he averaged 44.9 yards a kick on eight attempts. The Browns also punted eight times but averaged just 40.6. That difference of 4.3 yards per kick can really have an impact, especially on a day such as that one when the game was so close and the punters were so busy.

Now it’s the Browns who should be enjoying that advantage.

Zastudil did a good job in the preseason opener last Thursday night in Philadelphia. Being busier than he wanted to be because of the struggling offense, he punted five times, averaging 43.2 per kick.

That’s all well and good, but he knows that for him to have a real impact, he will have to keep turning in numbers like that – or better – on a continual basis.

“I’m hitting the ball well so far, striking it solid,” Zastudil said following Wednesday’s practice. “I’m confident, and I’m healthy.

“But the most important thing for me is to be consistent.”

He said special teams coordinator Jerry Rosburg has helped him with that consistency.

“He’s been great,” said Zatudil, who also holds for Dawson on field goals. “Plus the coverage of the special teams has been solid. I’m in a good situation here.”

Zastudil’s mind-set about punting is that the past is in the past, so to speak. You can’t do anything about something that has already happened – even if it’s something negative that you really want to change.

“You have to have a short memory if you’re a punter,” he said. “You just have to let it go and move on.

“There was this one punter I studied – I can’t remember his name – who, every time he hit a bad one, went to the sideline, grabbed a cup of water, took one sip and then threw the rest away. I laughed every time I saw it, but that was his routine. That is what helped him to clear his head.

“If I have a bad punt, I want it to be a good bad punt, if that makes any sense. I still want to get it high and at least 35 yards.”

The Browns’ training facility in Berea is no more than a couple of nice high punts away from where Zastudil grew up in Cleveland’s western suburbs. It was a big part of the reason why he signed here – to play for the team he rooted for as a kid, and to be close to home.

“Let’s be honest, training camp is training camp, no matter where you hold it,” he said. “But being that I’m in camp here, it’s nice. My wife’s family is from Columbus, so we’re closer to them, and I’m just a 20-minute drive from home. I can hop into the car and go visit my grandmother and other family members and friends I haven’t seen much in recent years.”

He denies there’s extra pressure on him in coming back to Cleveland, where he’ll be kicking in front of those family members and friends.

“There’s no pressure,” he said. “I just want to kick well and, more importantly, help the team win.”

To make sure he can do that, Zastudil is careful to monitor his kicks. Though he will have made about 800 punts by the time camp breaks next Thursday, he spreads them out so as to keep from doing too much and wearing his leg out.

“I over-kicked in camp my first couple of years in the league, and I learned from it,” said Zastudil, a fourth-round selection of the Ravens in the 2002 NFL Draft, when Browns general manager Phil Savage was assistant GM of the Ravens. “Now I kick smart, especially early in camp.”

That’s why Zastudil, Dawson and the two other kickers in camp, punter Kyle Basler and place kicker Jeff Chandler, are sometimes seen doing nothing. Just as a pitcher in baseball doesn’t throw a lot between starts, kickers bide their time. They have a specific routine they go through.

After all, the most important thing for them is not to be a camp wonder, but to be fresh and ready to go for the start of the regular season on Sept. 10.

That’s when the fans will really start paying attention to everything Dave Zastudil and the Browns specialists do.

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