Unexpected weapon

The ju­nior is on pace to shat­ter NCAA record with 54.9-yard av­er­age

San Antonio Express-News - - SPORTS - By Brent Zw­erne­man STAFF WRITER brent.zw­erne­man@chron.com twit­ter.com/brentzw­erne­man

» Punter Braden Mann gives Texas A&M an edge on the field.

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Braden Mann is a Texas A&M foot­ball his­to­rian, at least when it comes to the Ag­gies’ col­or­ful his­tory of re­mark­able punt­ing — in col­lege and be­yond.

“He’s a le­gend,” Mann said of for­mer A&M punter Steve O’Neal and his 98-yard boot for the New York Jets in 1969. “Long­est punt in the NFL.”

A&M has been home to O’Neal; for­mer Texans punter Shane Lech­ler; and the late Yale Lary, the only Ag­gie in the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame, among other nota­bles who have earned the univer­sity the nick­name “Punter U.”

Mann, a for­mer Cy-Fair stand­out, has only been the Ag­gies’ start­ing punter for half a sea­son, but he’s well on his way to leg­endary sta­tus. A week ago in the Ag­gies’ vic­tory over Kentucky, Mann had an 82-yard punt, third-long­est in pro­gram his­tory and long­est since 1944.

“I got the roll of a life­time,” said Mann, who has down­played the many ac­co­lades sud­denly rolling his way.

Two weeks ear­lier, he had the game of a life­time at Alabama, set­ting an NCAA record for av­er­age yards per punt in a game with 60.8 on five kicks.

“He’s ta­lented at ev­ery­thing he does,” said A&M run­ning back Trayveon Wil­liams, Mann’s room­mate. “Hav­ing a guy who can flip the field like he can is re­ally help­ing us.”

Mann’s first half was one for the record books. Through six games, he eas­ily leads the NCAA in punt­ing av­er­age at 54.9 yards on 23 kicks. He’s more than 8 yards ahead of his clos­est com­peti­tor in the SEC, LSU’s Zach Von Rosen­berg (47.3).

Mann and the No. 22 Ag­gies (4-2, 2-1 SEC) visit South Carolina (3-2, 2-2) at 2:30 p.m. Satur­day to kick off the sec­ond half of the reg­u­lar sea­son, and the punt­ing game is one area first-year coach Jimbo Fisher doesn’t have to worry about.

Fisher over­hauled plenty of po­si­tions when he ar­rived from Florida State last win­ter, but he quickly re­al­ized he didn’t need to mess with the punter. Fisher said kick­ers and pun­ters can grow bored and like golfers and start tin­ker­ing with their de­liv­ery.

“I tell Braden every day, ‘Don’t get bored, keep do­ing ex­actly what you’re do­ing,’ ” Fisher said. “Be­lieve it or not, it’s a lot harder to do than peo­ple think, be­cause you take it for granted or you can over­fo­cus.

“But he’s just re­lax­ing, trust­ing the process, hit­ting the ball and not get­ting bored.”

Back at Cy-Fair, Mann (5-11, 190) in­tended on play­ing line­backer for the Bob­cats — and be­yond.

“I wanted to play mid­dle line­backer in col­lege,” Mann said with a smile, “but clearly I’m a lit­tle smaller than your av­er­age line­backer.”

He also frac­tured his back twice, in sev­enth grade and three years later as a sopho­more at Cy-Fair.

“But I still wanted to play col­lege foot­ball, so I fig­ured I would just switch to kicker and punter,” Mann said.

That strat­egy paid off with a schol­ar­ship to A&M two years ago. The ju­nior spent his first two sea­sons back­ing up Shane Tripucka, but it was worth the wait for Mann and the Ag­gies. His cur­rent punt­ing av­er­age would snap the NCAA sin­gle-sea­son record by more than 3 yards.

Mann needs one more punt of 60-plus yards to tie the NCAA sin­gle-sea­son record of 13 set by Wake Forest’s Ryan Plack­e­meier in 2005.

Not only is Mann on the small side for a col­lege line­backer, he’s smaller than most pun­ters in col­lege and the pros, mak­ing his leg strength that much more eye­open­ing.

“I think I’m the small­est punter in the SEC right now,” Mann said. “When I was in high school I’d see guys (in col­lege) who were 6-3, 6-4 with that long frame. I’ve got that chip on my shoul­der, and I knew I needed to make up for my size.

“I knew if I don’t have a long leg, I had to have a faster leg.”

Roger Stein­man / As­so­ci­ated Press

Braden Mann, who also han­dles kick­off du­ties for the Ag­gies, has been a dif­fer­ence maker in the field-po­si­tion game. He needs one more punt of 60-plus yards to tie the NCAA sin­gle-sea­son record.

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