There’s a running joke at the University of Texas, where football coach Tom Herman refuses to call the specialists by their names. The rule is that, until graduation, he refers to “the kicker” and “the punter.”
The punter doesn’t mind.
“I want him to call me the punter forever now,” said Michael Dickson. “I’m taking it more as a compliment than anything. I think it went against what he was trying to do.”
Last season as a junior, Dickson averaged 47.4 yards per punt and placed 42 punts inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Herman may call him “the punter” as a joke, but everyone around the Texas program knew that Dickson, who won the Ray Guy Award as college football’s top punter, was a serious asset.
Dickson’s strong season wound up meaning that Herman will wait a little longer to call him by his name. In an unusual move for a punter or kicker, Dickson declared early for the NFL Draft. He’d spent plenty of mornings rising early to study in order to get into the business school, but he decided his 18 remaining credits would have to wait because the timing was right.
In the last 10 years only one punter, Jaguars 2012 third-round pick Bryan Anger, has been drafted inside the first three rounds, but some analysts have Dickson becoming the next. Still, it’s unpredictable.
“I think it can be risky because you just don’t know where you’re going to get drafted,” said CBS analyst Jay Feely, who kicked for 14 seasons in the NFL. “Especially coming out after [Buccaneers 2016 second-round pick] Roberto Aguayo failed miserably when he was drafted so high, and that’s going to make teams more hesitant to draft kickers and punters.”
Dickson said he tries not to worry about what has happened to others. He had such a good season, and this year felt like the right time to declare. He’s not lacking in confidence, either, and doesn’t mind being on the fast track. He became one of the best punters in college football in a matter of months.
Dickson is one of a small group of punters, some in college and others in the NFL, whose background is in Australian rules football, a full-contact sport where teams of 18 players attempt to score points by kicking an oval-shaped ball through or behind a set of goal posts.
Because it helps to have a big leg and accurately place the ball when kicking it, Aussie rules football has become a mini breeding ground for punters. Along with Dickson, Steelers punter Jordan Berry and former Giants punter Brad Wing both developed that way.
“It’s a completely different sport but you still kind of do a punting motion with a different ball,” Dickson said. “There’s a lot of different types of kicks. And I had a big kind of punt in that, so that’s why I thought I would want to maybe do punting over here.”
He’d only been working with a coach in Melbourne for a few months when Texas started asking around. Dickson’s coach told Charlie Strong, then the coach at Texas, and his staff that Dickson was the best player he was working with and sent over some YouTube videos.
Dickson had just started punting in March, but by August he was in Texas for camp. At that point, Dickson already had designs on getting to the NFL, but he didn’t know much about college football in the United States, other than that it would be a steppingstone. He didn’t realize he was going to be playing in front of close to 100,000 fans on a regular basis.
“I didn’t comprehend it until the year was over,” Dickson said. “And that’s when I looked back and was like, ‘This is massive.’ I was shocked by everything every week, but to really look back and comprehend everything, to have 90,000 on average, 100,000 people to a college game is just crazy to me.”
Dickson kicks with a bent-leg motion with far less swing than that of a typical NFL punting motion. He says the body control and understanding of ball placement that comes from Aussie rules football means he can try different kicks without messing up his muscle memory.
“It’s a little unconventional, but it really follows the same main concepts of punting, like the main fundamental things,” Dickson said. “I don’t like getting too picky. A lot of specialists get really picky like, ‘Oh, my ball drop came down at this angle, it should have come down on this angle.’ Or, ‘Oh, my foot was slightly longer than I like stepping normally.’ I don’t like thinking like that. That can really start messing you up.”
Feely said that, while eventually a punter has to settle on a motion to perfect, it may be good that Dickson is flexible. Punters with Aussie rules football backgrounds typically have to reinvent themselves when they transition from punting in college to the NFL.
“In general, the Aussie rules football players, their style and what they do well leads them to be better in college than it does in the NFL because the college rules favor the rollout rugby-style punt that has become very much en vogue in college,” Feely said.
In college, all of a punter’s blockers can release downfield as soon as the ball is snapped. This differs from the NFL, where only the two outside gunners can release right away. Everyone else has to remain on the line of scrimmage until the ball has been kicked.
This has led to the trend of college punters rolling out before actually punting in order to buy more time for their blockers to get downfield. It also favors the low, rugby-style punt because it will reliably roll forward. Because the blockers are already downfield and able to stop a returner from getting to the ball, the kicking team can often get an extra 20 yards or more because of a favorable roll.
There’s another punter in the draft, Alabama’s JK Scott, who could wind up going ahead of Dickson because Nick Saban still has his punters punt in the traditional way, a kick with often more hang time.
Still, it would be hard to match Dickson’s college production.
He was the MVP of the Texas Bowl, when he punted 11 times and landed 10 inside Missouri’s 15-yard line. He placed seven of those inside the 10, four inside the 5. None of Dickson’s punts went for touchbacks.
“I played with a guy on the Cardinals, Ben Graham, who was one of the first guys to come over here [from Australia], and that his greatest skill set was his ability to move the ball around, to directional it, to drop it right on the 5-yard line right where he wanted, and so the majority of those guys, that’s where they’re very good,” Feely said.
Even though he’d played so well, Dickson was surprised to learn he’d been named MVP. He was the first punter to be named MVP of a bowl game since Graham Gano of Florida State in the 2008 Champs Sports Bowl. Gano, though, was also the kicker. Still, if you’ll excuse the pun, Dickson got a kick out of it.
“I was like, ‘No, no no no.’ I was shocked that it happened,” Dickson said, chuckling at the memory.
Dickson acknowledged that he’s chosen an unusual path. He gets a certain amount of amusement and surprise from those around him who learn where his punting career could take him.
“Definitely some people are shocked,” Dickson said. “And it’s more, you get people saying, I’ve never really cared about punting until now, or I never used to watch it before you started punting for us. I get that a lot, and that’s a compliment to me because I think it’s a pretty cool part of the game that’s looked over a lot.”
Dickson will have to go back to school and finish his degree before Herman will call him by his name. He may not have to wait so long for an NFL team to do the same.