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The Nation’s Best Punter Is Changing The Game

Matt Araiza’s favorite punt of the season was an 81-yard boomer. It wasn’t just the distance that the San Diego State junior enjoyed, but what it did to the punt returner.

“It was a moonshot,” Araiza said. “You could see on the film he basically looked like he had never seen anything like that before. He was lost. He was spinning. He wasn’t even 5 yards away from the ball when it landed. He kind of gave up on it.”

Araiza punted 73 times in San Diego State’s 12 regular-season games for an average of 51.47 yards, according to ESPN’s Stats & Information Group. That distance, if kept up through the Mountain West Championship and the Aztecs’ bowl game — or if Araiza simply stopped punting now — would earn him the Football Bowl Subdivision record1 over Texas A&M’s Braden Mann, who averaged 51 yards per punt in 2018. Araiza might be the biggest leg college football has ever seen, and he’s putting together the kind of season that could change how we think about punters, at least if we pay attention to why he plays the position the way he does.

Arc diagram with distance traveled on each punt from Matt Araiza of San Diego State and number of punts at each distance. The national Football Bowl Subdivision average is 43.27 yards, and Araiza's average this season is 51.47 yards.
Arc diagram with distance traveled on each punt from Matt Araiza of San Diego State and number of punts at each distance. The national Football Bowl Subdivision average is 43.27 yards, and Araiza's average this season is 51.47 yards.

Aztecs special teams coordinator Doug Deakin believes that on about half of those punts, Araiza was trying to beat not just a return team but elevation. “Half of the games this year are guaranteed at sea level here at San Diego,” he said, so Araiza’s punts shouldn’t cut through the dense air. But in Week 8, the Aztecs were playing Air Force in Colorado Springs, Colorado –– 6,621 feet above sea level. The altitude meant it was time for the sport’s most powerful punter to bring his boomstick. So, in the first quarter, Araiza caught a long snap in the back of his end zone, took a few steps forward and punted a ball that landed at Air Force’s 18-yard line and bounced to the 12, where his teammates downed it.

In what might sound like a paradox, there are special teams coaches who would worry about their punter uncorking such a ferocious ball. The punting establishment, Araiza notes, frets about outkicking the coverage –– hitting a ball so far, traveling on such a straight line, that it creates challenges for the coverage team and even negates the distance off the foot. The same group never wants the ball to reach the end zone for a touchback.

Matt Araiza leads the nation in punting, but he also covers kicking duties for San Diego State.

Tom Hauck / Getty Images

Araiza, in the midst of one of the most prolific punting seasons ever, has taken a different approach. He wants to punt the ball as far as he can and dare you to go get it. He’s betting that you can’t, and that even if you do, he’ll come out ahead. And if the ball goes to the end zone? Well, if Araiza kicked it from the right spot on the field, he’s not concerned about that either.

San Diego State’s guiding goal is to net 40 yards per punt. If the total distance of each punt from the line of scrimmage, minus the return yardage or the 20 yards awarded on a touchback, reaches 40 yards, the Aztecs consider that a win. “That is effectively flipping the field,” Deakin said. Araiza’s average net is 44.67, third-highest in the country among punters with at least 60 punts and just a hair behind the two players ahead of him. Araiza grades out well in net punting despite having hit 14 touchbacks, the most in FBS. 

“The common thought that a touchback is a bad thing as a punter is totally wrong,” Araiza said. “It’s a situational thing. If you’re trying to pin them inside the 5 and it’s a pooch-style punt, then yeah, that would be a bad ball. But when you’re netting 60 yards on a ball that goes into the end zone, that is not a bad thing at all. That is almost the same thing as hitting a 60-yard ball out of bounds. In terms of the net, it’s the exact same thing, and a 60-yard ball out of bounds, if you can do that every game, you’d be the best punter in history.” 

Araiza had a 59-yard net on a 79-yard touchback against Hawaii, and five of his 14 touchbacks have exceeded the 40-yard net SDSU cares so much about. The team would rather Araiza overshoot a few times than dial back his power, which Araiza notes could lead to the kind of ugly shanks punters hit from time to time. Araiza’s shortest punt of the year was a 29-yarder from the opposing 40, where the net Deakin craves was not mathematically possible. (One can’t down a punt at the 0-yard line.)

Araiza is outkicking the rest of college football

Top 15 Football Bowl Subdivision punters by yards per punt during the 2021 season, along with number of touchbacks and net yardage per punt

player TEAM Punts TBs Net/Punt Yards/Punt
Matt Araiza San Diego St. 73 14 44.67 51.47
Ryan Stonehouse Colorado St. 58 11 42.31 50.91
Kyle Ostendorp Arizona 58 11 44.02 49.17
Bryce Baringer Michigan St. 56 8 43.50 48.55
Race Porter Washington 53 3 42.13 48.53
Josh Watts Colorado 66 7 39.50 47.79
Ryan Wright Tulane 51 6 44.45 47.53
Tommy Heatherly Florida Intl. 75 12 40.29 46.92
Jordan Stout Penn St. 62 3 45.08 46.55
Lachlan Wilson Tulsa 59 8 39.37 45.97
Adam Korsak Rutgers 70 0 45.34 45.93
Tory Taylor Iowa 69 11 41.96 45.75
Matt Hayball Florida Atlantic 61 6 41.02 45.74
Nik Constantinou Texas A&M 51 2 42.71 45.51
Blake Hayes Illinois 68 2 43.06 45.12

Includes punters with a minimum of 50 punts during the season.

Net yardage is total distance of each punt from the line of scrimmage, minus the return yardage or the 20 yards awarded on a touchback.

Source: ESPN Stats & Information Group

On a similar note, Araiza is fed up with the punting intelligentsia’s fetishization of hang time. This is a theory that it’s important to keep the ball up in the air for a long time, even at the expense of distance, to allow coverage players to get into position and prevent returns. “That’s something that the community of punting has gone crazy about now. And it’s almost like you see these pro camps, and it’s like they’re competing for hang time. That’s what they think makes a good punt, which I disagree with, because I think in certain situations, hang time can be a disadvantage.” He draws out a hypothetical: Usually, a punt returner sits 40 yards beyond the line of scrimmage — and he thinks it’s more like 50 in his case. If Araiza punts it past the point where the returner started but high in the air, the extra hang time might let the returner square up to start a better return. 

“The ball comes off my foot, and let’s say it’s only in the air for about 4.2, 4.3 seconds. That’s what I’ve been averaging recently. And so maybe a second in, two seconds, is when they can really tell, ‘OK, this is going to go far.’ So that gives them, you know, maybe two or three seconds to run back 15 yards and find the ball and have their balance, so that when they catch it, they can move forward. And you just don’t see that on a lot of my balls. They can’t catch them, and if they can catch them, they’re kind of off balance because they were running back or lose it in the air. So I would say that’s my biggest place where I disagree with the convention of punting, is this whole, ‘Oh, hang time is amazing. It’s super necessary,’ and all this stuff. I don’t know; there’s situations where you don’t need it so much.” 

The fun thing? Araiza still generates an average hang time of 4 seconds, above the 3.86-second national average. He just doesn’t think he needs it to prevent punt returners from finding the ball and running it back. And the stats back him up: Just 27.4 percent of his punts have yielded any return at all — equal to the 27.4 percent national average. That means that on a huge chunk of Araiza’s punts, returners simply are not tracking the ball down and catching it with a chance to return it. Araiza’s punts that are returned have gone for an average of 10.8 yards, well above the national average of 8.07. But when a returner starts from so far back, that doesn’t always mean much. The average field position after punt returns against Araiza is the opposing team’s 19.8-yard line, which is the longest field anyone with more than 30 punts has left facing opponents.

Sometimes, Araiza’s punts just keep going and going in a way that pulls a mental trick on the viewer and makes the return man inconsequential. “Any time the punt returner [has] it hit over their head, it’s made them less likely to go play it, ’cause their shoulders aren’t square,” Deakin said. “That ball has been carrying for Matt because it flies with such aerodynamics, a tight spiral, it doesn’t ever plummet. It continues to carry.” Camera operators have struggled as a result: 

Araiza has also not had a punt blocked. In addition to good snapping and protection provided by his teammates, it helps that he doesn’t have a long windup to generate his power. He likens his style to the “swing easy” approach he watches golfers take on the PGA Tour. “You’re not really supposed to swing a hundred percent, and that having that good ball contact will make up for that 20 percent of a lighter swing,” he says. He could be talking about swinging either his left leg or a golf club. 

SDSU’s average operation time — that’s the time from the long snapper’s hand moving to the ball hitting Araiza’s foot — on 56 punts for which ESPN Stats & Information Group has data is 2.2 seconds. That tracks closely enough with SDSU’s stated goal of a 2.1-second operation, given the margin for error with timing and data discrepancies. “An average snap comes back in about 0.7 to maybe 0.8,” Araiza said. “So that basically leaves me with, you know, 1.3, 1.4 seconds with the ball in my hand.” And then it should be gone.

A Pro Football Focus analysis in mid-November estimated that the difference between Araiza’s punts and an average punt had generated about three touchdowns’ worth of value for San Diego State, pushing Texas’s Michael Dickson in 2017 for the most value gained through punting in the last six years. Araiza’s value goes beyond punting, though. He is also SDSU’s kicker, and he’s been particularly prolific on kickoffs, another important part of the field position game. His 84.1 percent touchback rate is second-highest in FBS2 and saves SDSU’s kick coverage team from having to work much.

Nebraska Cornhuskers and Illinois Fighting Illini players face off at the line of scrimmage.

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He also kicks the Aztecs’ field goals and extra points. In this area, the team asks a ton of Araiza. He is 15-of-24 on field goals, but his average attempt comes from 43.6 yards out — the farthest of any kicker in the country.3 He is 9-of-10 from inside 40 yards, and his three makes from 50-plus yards (albeit on eight attempts) are tied for the fifth-most in FBS. The national make rate on 50-plus yard kicks is just 44 percent.

Araiza will play in the NFL one day soon, and he’s open to trying out as a dual punter/kicker, which NFL teams in this era almost never even let someone attempt, much less do in live action. It was notable in 2014 when the Colts’ Pat McAfee kicked the idea around, and when Norwegian punter/kicker Kaare Vedvik bounced around some rosters over the last few years. Araiza believes it “could be a really valuable thing to a team, allowing them to save a roster spot.” It probably won’t happen on a full-time basis, but Araiza might be an unusual case. 

Whatever his future holds, Araiza has put together an extraordinary football season. If his current average yardage stands up or improves, it would top not just Mann’s FBS record but also Sammy Baugh’s pro record of 51.4 yards, set in 1940. He’s pulled it off while being a respectable field goal kicker and one of the best kickoff performers in the sport, aggregating a skill set that any special teams coach will tell you is exceptionally hard to pull together. It is Araiza’s versatility, not his distance, that generated a nickname for him around SDSU’s football facility: The Anomaly. 

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  1. Minimum 50 punts.

  2. Minimum 50 kickoffs.

  3. Minimum 10 field-goal attempts.

Alex Kirshner is a writer in Washington, D.C. His work has been published in Slate, The Ringer, VICE and SB Nation, and he co-hosts the podcast Split Zone Duo.