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Published: Thursday, 9/29/2005

A game of Fields' position

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

EAST LANSING, Mich. - On the best of days for Brandon Fields, the top punter in the nation last season, he does not punt the ball a single time.

Ripping off a couple of un-returnable 60-yard spirals that look like they came out of a missile silo with a booster rocket pushing them - that's just a good day.

"If I don't punt, then that means our offense never got stopped all day long, and that's a very good thing," Fields said. "I love my role with the team and I have to be ready all the time, but I also see the big picture - the less I punt, the more our offense is doing."

Fields Fields
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And this season, the Michigan State offense is doing plenty, leading the Big Ten Conference in scoring at almost 50 points per game. So Fields has had only 13 punts in four games for the unbeaten and 11th-ranked Spartans, who play host to rival Michigan on Saturday.

"Our offense has been awesome, so I haven't had many opportunities at all," Fields said.

"That doesn't necessarily help me from a rhythm standpoint, but ... and this sounds kind of funny, but I'd really rather not punt at all, if that means the offense is scoring every time. Our No. 1 goal as a team is winning the Big Ten championship, so I'll take that over any awards or stats or all of that other stuff."

That perspective has its foundation in Fields' background, according to his high school coach at St. John's Jesuit, Matt Dzierwa, now an assistant coach at Otsego.

"Brandon is a lot more than just akicker or a punter. Brandon is a complete football player," Dzierwa said. "In high school, he played defensive end, tight end, offensive tackle, some linebacker, and he also handled all of the punting and kicking. He knows the game and understands the game. You just don't see many kickers or punters who have all of that kind of experience."

Fields, who was also a part of a 25-1 basketball team at St. John's in his senior year, said he has received a lot of attention at Michigan State for leading the country in punting last season, and finishing second as a freshman in 2003. But he came into 2005 pushing for improvement and refinement.

"I've always had very high standards for everything I do," Fields said, "but even if I didn't lead the nation last year, I would still set the bar higher this time around. I can always get better."

Michigan State coach John L. Smith knows he has an ace up his sleeve with Fields pacing the sideline behind him.

"Brandon Fields is not only an exceptional punter, he's also a very hard worker and a kid who drives himself to excel every moment," Smith said. "Field position means everything in the game of football, and Michigan State is going to always feel like we've got a little advantage there with Brandon Fields on our side."

Fields said he is still working on the "perfect punt," but that he had one that qualified as a semifinalist last season against Ohio State. It went about 60 yards, hit at the 3-yard line and died on the 1.

"I've had a few that were close to perfect, but I'm a stickler for the details, and the best punt is not always the longest one - the 60-yarder that drives the return man back," Fields said. "The best punt doesn't even have to be a perfect spiral, as long as it pins the opponent deep in their end, and it does not get returned."

That philosophy has Fields working more on the nuances of the punt game than on sheer distance. Net punting is the key - the amount of distance the line of scrimmage is moved, after the punt and the return are factored in.

"This year I'm a lot more focused on net yards than straight distance," said Fields, who popped a 79-yarder against Notre Dame as a freshman. "I want to get the ball inside the 20 with more hang time. I can't outkick my coverage, and then allow a 20-yard return. It is much better to get a well-placed 45-yard punt they don't return, than a 55-yarder they will have time to run back."

The rest of the Spartans seem acutely aware that if there is an exchange of punts, it is advantage MSU.

"Brandon is a real weapon on this team," said senior center Chris Morris of Lambertville. "When you've got a guy like that, you pretty much know you're going to gain 10 or 15 yards or more each time the ball gets punted back and forth. He's a big asset."

Dzierwa, who both punted and played quarterback at Northwestern, knows how vital the punt game is in the Big Ten, where Fields' career average of 47.1 yards is a conference record.

"There is hidden yardage there every time you kick the ball - special teams change the game," Dzierwa said. "Depending on how you punt the ball, you can hurt or help the defense, and hurt or help the offense. I think Brandon knows exactly what he can do to best help his team, and his focus is solely on that."

Fields, who is also doing some kickoff work for the Spartans, anticipates getting the call to punt the ball away a few times against the Wolverines.

"I'll just try and go through my ritual, and be mentally ready to go," Fields said. "I'm always watching, trying to anticipate the situation, keeping myself loose and stretched out. My chin strap will be buckled, and I'll be ready to go, if they need me. And if I'm not on the field punting at all, then that means things are going very well for us, and that suits me fine."

Contact Matt Markey at:

mmarkey@theblade.com

or 419-724-6510.



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