On the college football internet, punters are cult heroes. When the Seahawks traded up in 2018 to get Michael Dickson, fresh off the greatest punting exhibition ever, college fans lined up to assure confused Seattle fans the team had made the right choice.
It’s not just that we in the punterati want to look like connoisseurs who appreciate the fine art of special teams or enjoy the irony of celebrating overlooked athletes. It’s that punters really are better now than ever. The most recent NFL seasons have had the longest average punts in league history. College ball lacks the NFL’s level of historical data, but the best punters are clearly punting farther than ever.
Australian imports led the revolution by dropping outrageously accurate punts into tiny windows year after year. Dickson followed an Aussie punting pipeline paved by the NFL’s Darren Bennett, LSU’s Brad Wing, Utah’s Tom Hackett, and others. They used a mix of skill and personality to turn the bathroom break of football plays into appointment viewing. The internet’s Punt Club appreciates these global contributions.
But Punt Club was also delighted when a homegrown talent took punting to a new level. This is where Houston native Braden Mann arrives.
After years of dominance by Aussie accuracy, Mann restored our national self-esteem in 2018 by blasting BIG, LOUD, AMERICAN PUNTS.
Starting in 2013, Aussie punters won five Ray Guy Awards in a row: Memphis’ Tom Hornsey, Hackett twice, Hackett successor Mitch Wishnowsky, and Dickson.
But here’s a fact: none led the country in yards per punt. Most were a few yards from the national lead. Their expertise was in precision. They could drop footballs inside the five and play field position.
When Mann put a stop to the Aussies’ Ray Guy streak in 2018, he did it not with laser-guided missiles that could dink the corner of a pylon. Mann drops meteors, levels the whole stadium, and lets God sort it out.
Dickson put 10 punts inside the 20 in his bowl game alone, while Mann did it 18 times the whole year. But Mann punted the chocolate out of the ball in ways no college player ever had. Consider:
- Mann averaged 51 yards per punt. By more than a yard and a half, that’s the best ever for someone punting at least 50 times in a season. It’s also the best ever for someone punting 36 times in a season. The NCAA doesn’t track fewer than that.
- Against Alabama, Mann bombed in a 60.8-yard average, then the highest ever by a punter with five or more punts in a game. (Arizona State’s Michael Turk then averaged 63 in Week 1 of 2019.)
- Mann hammered out 14 punts of 60 or more yards, yet another NCAA record.
From 2000 to 2018, these were the 20 best FBS seasons by yards per punt:
A friend of mine who teaches data visualization told me that graph was misleading, so here is another one for people who
don’t properly appreciate Mann’s greatness might want it:
Anyway, Mann was not concerned with cute coffin corner kicks. His priority was to wallop the hog a mile and laugh while you backpedaled.
During his historic season, Mann had nine punts go for touchbacks, tied for the third-most in FBS. And returners of his punts naturally started with tons of space. Yet during Mann’s 2018 reign, they averaged a middling 6.3 yards.
He’s expressed admiration for, and a desire to replicate, Aussie accuracy. Despite lacking it, Mann still netted 44.7 yards per punt, better than Dickson’s 44.2 the year prior.
While Mann was burning records, his punts became highlights for the right kind of nerd. A&M fans came to protect him as fiercely as they do oil prices. A few fans gave Mann the nickname “PISS MISSILE,” something internet punting sensation Pat McAfee got started. (McAfee is a big Mann fan.)
There was a time when a talent like Mann might go widely unnoticed. That time has passed. He kicks the ball so hard that it would be a safety hazard to ignore him. No matter where you live, you cannot rule out the possibility of a Mann punt crashing into your living room.
Mann passed up a chance to be the first punter drafted in 2019. He liked playing college football, but he also wanted to refine his skills. He was worried that he was punting too far and not giving his coverage team enough chance to survive for the long haul. He wanted to get better at the things that had won so many Ray Guys for the Australians.
“I kind of out-punted my coverage a lot more, and that’s why you see the distance numbers the way they were,” Mann told me.
In 2019, Mann’s last year in college, he shifted gears to focus more on hang time.
“We were focused more on better placement, more inside the 20, less touchbacks, like that,” he said. “I feel like in those aspects, we did improve this year.”
Indeed: Mann only punted four touchbacks (down from nine) and put 22 punts inside the 20, compared to 13 during his record-setting season. His 47.1-yard average was fourth nationally, but Mann had already proven he could kick the ball farther than anyone. He spent his last year in College Station proving he could control it.
“I like to think that I have a good leg speed, but at the same time, it was just kind of me getting out in front of the ball and just kind of letting it go as far down the field as I could,” he told me. “I was able to control that a lot more in 2019, getting it more up and through the ball rather than just out, and just punting it as far as I could.”
Two games against South Carolina teams illustrate how Mann is a weapon.
1. In 2018, only two teams came close to beating Clemson. One was Syracuse, when Trevor Lawrence was hurt. The other was A&M, largely because of Mann.
He might’ve been the one player all year who outclassed the Tigers, flexing the purest form of American power: a monstrous punt that’s basically unreturnable.
Here, watch Mann punt a ball exactly 69 yards. Amari Rodgers runs backward into no-man’s land and a 0-yard return:
Mann also had a 73-yarder. He punted five times for 275 yards, a 55-yard average. In total, Clemson got nine return yards. Mann also kicked off five times and got four touchbacks.
For good measure, as A&M’s holder, PISS MISSILE threw in a heavy tackle on a blocked field goal. (The block wasn’t his fault.) The teams had nearly identical starting field position despite Clemson’s plus-two turnover margin.
A&M came within two points of the champs, something that would’ve been impossible without Mann. Pound for pound, you could argue it was the best individual performance by any player in 2018.
A&M fans could counter Mann was even better in the statistical all-timer against Bama. Or they could point to his awesome performance against Kentucky, including a 65-yarder to the UK six and this bonkers, 82-yard touchback:
This would’ve been 89 yards if an Australian conspiracy hadn’t placed a stupid end zone in the way. It still netted 62.
2. Mann has non-punting skills. The former high school soccer player arrived in College Station in 2016 as one of the best placekicking recruits in the country. Both Kevin Sumlin and Jimbo Fisher chose to deploy him as A&M’s full-time kickoff specialist, and the punter finished in the top 15 in kickoff touchback percentage twice in his first three seasons.
The longest return anyone put on Mann in 2018 was a 32-yarder by South Carolina’s Bryan Edwards on a 52-yard boot in Week 7. Here is how #34 Mann, at a listed 5’11 and 195 pounds, finished that play:
Mann played middle linebacker in high school.
“I always considered myself a football player, not just a kicker,” he said. His next two appearances that day were to kick off for a touchback and launch a casual 67-yard punt.
“Position U” arguments are silly, but holy hell, look at A&M’s punters.
In 1969, Aggie alum Steve O’Neal hit the longest punt in NFL history, a 98-yarder for the Jets. That’s only an anecdote here, but look at it anyway:
When Mann’s 2018 season ended, there was one punter in football history — between the NFL, NCAA, and CFL — who’d averaged more yards per punt over a whole season (minimum 36 punts) than his 51.
That was fellow Aggie Shane Lechler, at 51.1 yards in 2009. By this time, Lechler was a 33-year-old in the process of making AP first-team all-pro for the fifth time. His Aggie lineage appears secure.
A&M is Punter U.