March 5, 2011 10:15:00 PM
STARKVILLE -- On the heels of Mississippi State''s punting game posting its best statistical season of the decade, sophomore punter Baker Swedenburg knows he needs to perform well.
The Heritage Academy graduate sat behind Heath Hutchins in each of the past two seasons and watched him drop 24 punts inside the 20-yard line and finish 29th nationally in net punting last season.
The Bulldogs allowed just 5.5 yards per punt return last season, which ranked third in the league.
MSU''s punting game and a ball-control offense often put its defense in favorable positions with long fields to defend.
"I took a lot of cues from (Hutchins)," Swedenburg said Saturday following MSU''s second spring practice. "We were pretty close last year, and he was locked in when it was time to be."
A former gray-shirt player, Swedenburg is competing with William Berg to replace Hutchins. Neither player has attempted a punt in a game for the Bulldogs.
Swedenburg said Hutchins gave him the blueprint for how to kick his team into favorable situations, instead of maximizing power on each punt. The level of concentration needed to take advantage of field position requires optimal focus and countless hours of punting, Swedenburg said.
"The thing is just to practice it over and over again," he said. "It has to become second nature during the game. As far as precision, I''ve got to put my team in the best position, and as long as I do that I don''t care if I have the best stats."
Swedenburg enjoyed a standout career at Heritage Academy. He was ranked the nation''s No. 7 kicker nationally by ESPN.com and No. 9 nationally as a punter by Scout.com. He averaged 42 yards per punt as a senior.
However, Swedenburg''s lack of game experience means he hasn''t punted in front of a crowd or on the road in the Southeastern Conference. Punting with pressure will be a challenge for Swedenburg, who said he has worked on concentration more than mechanics.
"Mechanics are important because an inch difference on your drop makes all the difference," Swedenburg said. "But that consistency comes with concentration. I got to work on that a lot over the last two and a half years, and a lot during bowl preparation. If I really concentrate on locking with my drop and everything, I''m fine. If I''m trying to kill it, it doesn''t happen."
MSU coach Dan Mullen, who also coaches special teams, said Swedenburg made significant improvement last season. Mullen hasn''t named a starter, but Swedenburg is the only punter on the roster who is on scholarship.
"Hopefully we''ll see him continue to grow and be ready to take that job over," Mullen said. "You''ll see both of them pound out 65-yard punts, and you''re like, ''Wow.'' And then you''ll see them shank one. We just got to get those guys to learn that it''s not just the ones, it''s the consistency."
After a standout prep career, Swedenburg said not being on the field has been humbling. He said grayshirting his freshman year helped him adjust to being a college athlete.
"I knew I had to be patient," Swedenburg said. "(God) rewards patience. I took that in stride and told myself I''m probably not going to be the starter coming in. Awesome if I am, but I made sure I humbled myself before I got a big head. I didn''t like it at the time, but it really helped me mature in the kicking game."