FOXBORO – For the first time since 2010, there are two punters in Patriots camp.
The incumbent, Zoltan Mesko, is facing his first extended challenge since his rookie season when he was a fifth-round draft pick out of Michigan. The challenge is provided by Ryan Allen, a baby-faced kid from Louisiana Tech who –- despite being the two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award at La. Tech –- went undrafted.
Through two preseason games, Mesko’s punted six times and Allen four. Mesko’s gross average of 44.5 is a smidge behind Allen’s average of 46.5. But the net punting average is heavily in Mesko’s favor. Thanks to a touchback and a 62-yard return on an Allen punt, the newcomer’s net is just 23 yards. Mesko’s is 39.
The Patriots’ special teams philosophy cares far less about how far a punter hits it as opposed to how well he places it. Directional punting, plus-50 punting, and avoiding touchbacks are emphasized. If punts are returned, the punter should be putting the ball where the coverage team is headed to minimize big returns.
Those nuances to Mesko’s game -– in addition to his experience as Stephen Gostkowski’s holder –- probably point to him keeping a leg up on Allen.
But it’s not over until it’s over, and Mesko said Wednesday he’s been fine with having Allen trying to take his job.
“I think competition in itself makes you better. That is a definite pro, having someone tangible beside you,” said Mesko. “But I am a nutcase that doesn’t take failure (well). If I hit a bad punt I’ll be on my own case just as much as if there was no one there. I know there’s dozens of guys out there just looking for an opportunity.”
During practices, the specialists are often segregated from the rest of the team on a separate field working on their craft until they’re summoned for special teams action with the full squad. That’s meant plenty of down time with Allen and Mesko working together while competing against each other.
Asked about the awkwardness of knowing that, if Allen is working here in September, Mesko won’t be, Mesko said, “Even if you’re 5-years-old you understand that. That comes with the business. That’s what we signed up for and it’s fine with us. As far as getting along, we get along as any human being may get along. We’re just trying to make this team better. In the long run, we want to be the best component to add to this team to make it win.”