The science behind every kick, explained by NFL veterans
Punting and kicking in the NFL isn’t just about lower-body power. No amount of leg extensions and squats will turn a typical athlete into a pro specialist.
Instead, the gravity behind these special teams solar systems comes from full-body routines and discipline. A good punt hangs on how the kicker reads the pre-snap rush and how the ball is dropped on his foot in a literal head-to-toe routine. A successful field goal is reliant on fluid hips and a consistent leg swing. Every kick you see isn’t just a kick — it’s the product of a chain reaction that started years before the ball was ever snapped.
For players who hang out on the periphery of the box score, kickers and punters have a major role in how a game unfolds. Although it’s easy to see the output of their work, it’s not always clear what goes into these kicks. The 10,000 hours of technique that constitutes every special teams play carries through film study and into the weight room. These kicks are the result of thousands of power cleans and sprints, knowing the right spot and timing for every play, and understanding how to react when something unexpected happens.
In order to better understand the winding road that leads to each play, I talked with two NFL veterans — one a kicker, one a punter — who were happy to break down their craft.
Great kicks start at the point of contact
Different kicks — kickoffs, field goals, and punts — come off different parts of the foot. Hitting that specific part of the foot is paramount to a successful try or booming blast downfield. A specialist’s main job is to connect with the same point of contact every time they take the field.
That’s only the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to special teams success, however. Let’s start with the point where the ball goes flying off the foot and work backwards from there. What are punters and kickers looking for? It depends on what kind of kick they’re lining up.
Thanks to the ball’s location on the ground, this is the kick placed closest to the toe.
“You want to hit the center of the [metatarsal] bone that runs roughly from the ankle to the big toe,” Washington kicker Dustin Hopkins told me. “You want to hit that line atop your foot every time. The goal is that even a mishit will be a make. Obviously you want to hit your ‘A’ ball every time, but in the pros you need your ‘B’ and ‘C+’ ball to be a make, too.”
That placement stays consistent regardless of distance, at least for the Washington kicker.
“I don’t change [the launch angle] very often,” Hopkins responded. “I have a pretty high takeoff angle, and an oncoming kick rush shouldn’t have any impact on getting my kick off. There was one game where I should have — last year, vs. Houston. It was a 63-yard kick and I didn’t factor in a slight wind and cooler temperatures. But other than that, I try not to change anything.”
That wind and the dropping temperatures that come with the waning weeks of the regular season certainly affect special teamers.
“There’s no doubt the cold weather takes some yardage off your kicks,” Hopkins explained. “I don’t know if I could put a number on it but, man, when that ball doesn’t compress as easily and that leather is stiffer, the ball doesn’t jump off your foot. I know guys tend to think it’s easier to hit field goals earlier in the season rather than later. It definitely takes off some pop.”
For Hopkins, that doesn’t alter where he places his kick — just how it flies once it’s exploded off his foot.
A teed-up ball provides about an inch’s clearance from the ground. That gives kickers the chance to strike closer to the ankle and generate a little more power in the process.
“When it comes to a kickoff, you get to use more of your [quadricep muscles],” said Hopkins. “You hit the ball with the fatter part of your foot, closer to the ankle.”
This, combined with a longer run-up, a lack of oncoming rush, and a lesser need for pinpoint accuracy downfield, allows for 70+ yard kicks off the tee for players who may top out around 55 yards on field goal attempts.
This kick makes contact higher up the leg as it drops from the punter’s hands above, connecting roughly where the foot and ankle meet. The athletes behind these field position-trading plays deal with more moving parts than kickers lining up a field goal. Without a holder to serve as the conduit between the snap and the kick, a good punt has to be corralled before anything can happen.
That setup — everything from the pre-snap read to the way a punter drops the ball before kicking it — is instrumental to its success.
“Something that made me better at punting wasn’t punting the ball,” former Raiders and Broncos punter Marquette King told me. ”It was technical drills. Working on dropping the ball — walking in a straight line, dropping the ball, making sure my arm extension’s on point, the way you look at the football when you drop it. All that plays a part.
“Not everyone’s the same. [Kicking styles] are like a golf swing. You find what works for you. It looks so easy, but all the players that talk shit about punters or kickers — you could maybe find one player on the roster who could legitimately kick consistently.”
The user-error shank
A successful kick comes off the inside of the foot. Unsuccessful kicks can be the result of several different problems, but one of the most common ones is bad placement.
Anything breaching the line between the big toe and the ankle cedes the control a specialist needs to pinpoint his shots downfield. A ball coming off the side of the foot will shoot right on a right-footed kicker and left for a lefty while creating less power and spin as it careens off its ideal line. In a discipline that craves consistency, the difference of an inch can completely derail a play.
Ideal for short-field situations, a vertical drop results in a high-arching kick that hangs in the air but fails to maximize a punter’s distance.
“It’s called the Aussie Rules punt, which was created by this punter for San Diego, [Darren] Bennett,” King explained. “He was the first one to start doing it, and then Mike Scifres was one of the people who continued it. You drop it vertical and you punch your foot to hit the meat of the football. You can hit it as hard and high as you want, but it’s only going to go about 40, 45 yards.
Unlike some kicks that require the nose of the ball to be angled slightly downward, the rugby punt turns the ball 90 degrees after the snap.
“I usually drop mine north and south [with the tips of the football perpendicular to the turf].”
Looking to keep the ball out of the wind with a line-drive kick? A lower drop changes the trajectory of the punt, allowing for more straight-line power and less hang time.
“You want to drop the ball slightly lower — if you drop it normal, the wind could take hold of the football,” said King. “When you drop the ball the way you normally drop it, it can blow the ball a little more inside or outside than you’re used to.”
That adjustment keeps the wind from having a greater effect on the flight of the ball. It also reduces the chance gusts could push the ball away from his preferred contact point, resulting in a shank. King holds the ball lower rather than taking the ball from its normal release point and dropping a little further to his foot.
“Any time [the elapsed time from drop to kick] changes, you’ve got a problem on your hands. You want to do things the same — the only change is how low you drop the ball close to your foot.”
What about when things go wrong?
Mistakes happen, even in the NFL where blockers, snappers, and holders get hundreds of practice reps to chase perfection on the field. But specialists can build in panic switches to keep their plays from falling apart when their teammates slip up. These insurance policies keep the consistency and timing of a successful kick in place regardless of situation.
The hitch step
Timing is everything on a field goal, but there’s a lot of work that goes into the 1.25 seconds — the industry standard, according to Hopkins — from when a kicker starts his motion to making contact with the ball. That’s enough time for things to go haywire, though Hopkins has a failsafe. A quick stutter step midway through his approach can buy the extra half-second his holder needs to snag an off-target snap or a misplaced hold while providing the momentum Hopkins needs to follow through.
“I shouldn’t take off if the snap is late,” said Hopkins. “My cues shouldn’t be based on when the ball comes. I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s say if I’m early — and some guys keep this, some guys don’t — I keep a jab [half-step] in my steps. That way I can take that jab, hold it, and still get my two steps before the kick. That way I can manufacture some timing of my own if things are a little off.
“Some guys don’t like it — they’re huge proponents of two [full] steps [before kicking]. They believe the less moving parts, the better. I prefer the jab. If my timing is off, I can still save a kick.”
Kickers who need two full steps can get stuck playing a waiting game on a bad snap or a briefly botched hold, delaying their run-up in the process and increasing the chances of a block. Hopkins’ hitch step sacrifices some power, but it also helps keep his get-off time down.
The pre-snap read
For most field goals, the view from eight yards behind the line of scrimmage rarely changes. Opposing defenses are bringing a full rush to block a try with few exceptions.
A glance at an opponent’s alignment usually won’t change Hopkins’ routine.
“I make no adjustments,” he told me with a chuckle. “The only time would be is if there’s a fake on, and Tress [Way, Washington punter and holder] and I know the situation of whether [the fake] is on or off. Other than that, I’m not worried about the rush. If I take care of what I need to take care of — if my timing’s right and I’m not slow — and the integrity of my line is good, then they can’t really affect me either way.”
It’s different for punters like King, who have to survey the field and gauge just how fierce the punt block attack will be.
“You look at the stances [of the opposing team], you can tell if they’re coming to block it. Then you can stand up your players to stop it. First you count to see how many people are up front. When there are three and three on each side — six people total — they’re going for a return. Or if the gunners are double covered, you know you’ve got plenty of time.”
Sometimes this chaos can be a calming factor for a kicker. A clean pocket invites the opportunity for too much thought behind a simple act.
“Have you ever been playing a basketball game and you’ve had a wide open layup?” King asks. “Nobody’s around you but those are the hardest ones to make … Sometimes you overthink it. You see you’ve got all the time in the world, and then ‘oops.’”
The “whatever works”
If you’re pinned deep in your end zone or facing a furious rush, time takes precedence over technique. A punter like King just needs to offload the ball in order to avoid oncoming rushers — and a kick at only 75 percent power is light years better than a block.
“I usually practice dropping the ball randomly. So when I’m in a position when I have not even a couple of milliseconds to kick the ball, as long as the ball drops flat, then I’m good. When you’ve got the ball flat, then you can just swing because the ball will be there in the same spot. Every time.”
For King, this removes the uncertainty of trying to uncork a kick on the run.
“I’ve never been a fan of the roll-out-and-punt thing … If you have too many moving parts, then no one’s on the same page. I can do it, but at the same time getting the result you want every time would be difficult.
“With a botched snap I’d rather take off running than attempt [a rugby style kick]. I’m a perfectionist, so I want to get off a perfect kick every time. You can practice a botched snap and sometimes it will work out, but it’s much different in a game.
“It’s almost like trying to do the Happy Gilmore swing in a serious game … So I just hit it the way I always do and pray for a roll.”
The roll-out punt
While King is a straight-line punter who rarely deviates from his spot in the backfield, running rugby-style kicks have recently become more popular in the NCAA and, to a lesser extent, the NFL. Rolling to the direction of a specialist’s kicking leg helps buy time for the punting team’s gunners to make their way downfield. It also allows the punter to line up closer to the line of scrimmage, adding a little extra distance to his boot.
NFL teams haven’t adopted the rugby kick as willingly, instead relying more on traditional punting norms in a bid for simplicity.
Jamie Gillan, currently battling Britton Colquitt for the Browns’ punter job, utilized a run-out kick at Arkansas-Pine Bluff that traded on his background as a rugby player in his native Scotland. However, he’s converted to a full-time pocket punter now that he’s left college football behind.
“The coaches I talked to all want me to be a stationary punter,” Gillan told me in May. “That’s actually perfect for me. Running with the football and punting it down the field with great height under it is really hard. Especially if it’s windy or anything like that. All my combine work has all been in regular American style. But I’ve still got a little bit of a weird flair to it because of the way I hold the ball and how I kick it.”
That ability to crank a boomer on the run is still something most punters are happy to keep in their back pocket. If protection breaks down and there’s no chance to advance the ball, a handful of lateral steps could be the difference between getting a kick off and getting washed away by an oncoming rush.
What about off the field? The days of the 150-pound kicker are mostly over, save for whichever Gramaticas may be coming down the line. A big part of that comes from a weight room routine that spares few kickers from the rigors their teammates incur.
A kicker’s workouts are much more — and less — than leg strength
The road to becoming an NFL specialist isn’t much different than at other positions — at least in the weight room. But while building up strong legs in the offseason is important, the key to special teams play throughout the regular season comes down to explosiveness and flexibility.
“Honestly, we do a lot of the same [offseason weight room workouts] as the rest of the team, with some additional stuff thrown in,” added Hopkins. “Often it’s extra core work that other guys might not do, in addition to whatever the workout is already. Just for core stabilization with how much twisting we do, it’s vital just to stay healthy.
Boiled down to one go-to exercise, King and Hopkins both sang the praises of power cleans — a lift that sees a player lift a bar from the ground to shoulder level in one intense movement.
“It’s explosive,” Hopkins reflected. “You get your hips through and it’s a movement that requires timing. Even though it’s not the same at all [as a field-goal attempt], if you can get that down you probably have good timing. You can hopefully transfer that into kicking.”
Hopkins also said his workouts mirror those of sprinters and other athletes whose successes lie in increasing leg speed.
“There’s a trade-off point — a lot of our strength comes from speed. Getting your foot moving. That comes along with being flexible, having good timing. It’s not necessarily having quote-unquote ‘strong legs.’ It’s having a good leg whip and leg speed.
“What comes with that too is our work in the offseason. Anything that will help a sprinter get fast legs is something we’ll try to transfer into [kicking] the ball. A lot of short sprints in the offseason. Not a lot of long distance runs — everything is quick and explosive. Not too much cardio on my end, except for the occasional bike ride.“
King follows a similar regimen once fall rolls around.
“I don’t do a lot of power lifts now,” said King. ”I’ve done a whole season without lifting legs at all so I could stay flexible. The more you lift, especially during the season, the tighter your muscles get. And that creates problems.
“Flexibility is what it’s all about. Coming into the season, I’ll stretch two times per day. Quads, hamstrings, making sure your hips stay loose.”
That shift away from weights for specific workouts plays a role as the regular season wears on.
Part of kicking prep is preventing burnout, too
For each veteran, avoiding overworked muscles takes precedence over pure strength when the season begins.
King began his college career as a wide receiver before changing positions to escape a crowded depth chart. It also bolstered his legend as one of Fort Valley State’s hardest workers — both on the practice field and in the weight room. But once he latched on with the Raiders, he found himself in a much more relaxed atmosphere under the guidance of one of the league’s oldest veterans.
“Nothing really changed with my weightlifting routine,” King recalled when asked about his collegiate move to punter. “It made me work even harder. As I got to the pros [former Raiders kicker Sebastian] Janikowski would always get down on me … I would get aggravated and punt until my leg felt like it was gonna fall off. Something Janikowski taught me was ‘less is more.’
“You’re not going to get that many opportunities in a game. Instead of kicking thousands of balls, I’d do more quick leg work — stuff that really mattered.”
Hopkins stays active in the weight room throughout the year, but his workload decreases as Sunday approaches — at least from a pure stretching standpoint.
“I used to do a lot more static stretching before kicking,” he revealed. “I don’t do that anymore. Now I do more active stretching. Almost every day I’ll ride a bike between one to two miles to get my heart rate up, then one of my trainers — he’s probably stretched me over 500 times now. He puts me through a routine.
“That static stretching is in preparation for the game, but not necessarily before the game. The reason for that is I felt at one point that I was so flexible I was losing pop. Like a rubber band that’s been stretched too much. In order to have muscle flexibility, we static stretch on those other days, and on gameday just get warm enough where I still have pop, but they’re flexible thanks to the work I’ve put in.”
After that, the final part of the equation is having a life off the field and outside the practice facility.
“I do things differently than a lot of punters,” said King. “I just live. I get my massages, make sure my muscles are loose. But then it’s a little lying around, playing video games, just doing things that make you happy, make you comfortable. That’s what I focus on.
“Some kickers have these routines, every day the same thing. I tried to do that, but if I didn’t do something it’d throw me off. Just do whatever, man. As long as you work hard and you know you put everything into your workouts and your drill time, success is going to come.”
And as long as that “whatever” connects one foot to the muscle memory that’s taken years to build, you’ll be fine.
“It is a very simple job,” Hopkins confided. “But just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s easy.”