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Original Issue

Ah! Those punts hit the spot

A bare foot and a bowling technique help Jim Miller pin down Ole Miss' rivals

Jim Miller's 3,007 neighbors in Ripley, Miss, can believe it or not, but young Miller once was impressed by something he did in a football game. The 21-year-old junior punter for the University of Mississippi is a quiet country boy who is sort of abashed by his feats. During last year's LSU-Ole Miss game, however, Miller nearly had to pay the penalty for being enthralled by his own flashy footwork.

Miller had unleashed a towering punt and, while running downfield with the Rebel coverage unit, was admiring the spiraling ball and didn't notice the 6'6" LSU lineman zeroing in on him. Moments before the collision the lineman pulled up short, did a double take and burst out laughing. Why? Well, for one thing, Miller's lurching gait looked a bit like a giraffe's. For another, blind-siding a punter who wears only one shoe would be half shoddy.

The 5'11", 185-pound Miller has only punted barefoot for three years. Or since he came to Oxford from Ripley, tossed his right shoe aside during his first practice and went on to finish third among Southeastern Conference punters that season with a 40.5-yard average. Along the way, Miller set a school record with an 82-yard punt against South Carolina and stunned Tulane with a 76-yarder that, with the roll, covered 114 yards before the ball came to rest against a stadium fence.

If any of Miller's coaches entertained the idea that the freshman might do better with a shoe, that notion was discarded when Miller's punting led Ole Miss to a 10-7 upset of Alabama. In that game Miller dropped four punts dead inside the 10-yard line and another on the 14; and the Tide returned but two of his nine punts for a total of 12 yards. The victory was Mississippi's fifth in 32 games against Alabama, and had Miller thereafter told the Rebel coaching staff that he planned to punt in open-toed, high-heeled wedgies, no one would have objected.

Last season, as a sophomore, Miller was even better. He was the NCAA punting champion with a 45.9-yard average on 66 kicks, 17 of which went out of bounds, were downed or fair-caught inside the opponent's 20-yard line, and 26 of which exceeded 50 yards. His average broke the SEC record (45.3) that Charles Conerly, who played for Ole Miss, had held for 31 years.

Miller not only kicks them long, he kicks them high. He consistently "hangs" his kicks for about five seconds and has had one of 5.3, a time matched consistently only by Ray Guy of Oakland. Because Miller gets his punts away quickly—an average of two seconds after the snap—he has never had a punt blocked.

What this means to the Rebels, of course, is field position: an opponent must often march more than two-thirds of the field for a touchdown. "It's another first down our opponent has to make to get to the point where they'd normally get the ball," says Steve Sloan, who took over as head coach at Ole Miss this year. "Normally, the team that has the best field position has the best chance to win, and if the game were otherwise equal, he would be the edge in giving us the field position. Over the course of a season, a punter like Jim can mean 500 or 1,000 yards in exchange yardage."

It doesn't always work that way, however. Two weeks ago, when Missouri clobbered Ole Miss 45-14, Miller intentionally kicked short to put the ball out of bounds on the Tiger 17-yard line. Two plays later, Missouri scored as Gerry Ellis bolted off guard and went 77 yards for a touchdown. Miller punted 12 times against Missouri, averaging 45.8 yards on the eight punts he didn't have to kick short. As it was, he may have been the Rebels' best offensive weapon. Two of his high, twisting kicks were fumbled to set up both Ole Miss touchdowns. Last week Mississippi was again clobbered, this time 42-3 by Georgia, but Miller continued to do his bit with kicks of 52 and 57 yards.

Miller's distance has created a not unwelcome problem for Mike Pope, the Ole Miss kicking and offensive-line coach, who discovered that a coverage unit staffed with the normal allotment of lumbering offensive linemen could not get downfield fast enough. The Rebel punt coverage team therefore includes six defensive backs, two wide receivers and two running backs.

In contrast to some punters, who blame bad kicks on the snap, the blocking, the weather, the turf, coaching or a downward turn in biorhythms, Miller is a barefoot boy without cheek. "He feels his job is to punt the ball as far as he can every time," Pope says, "and that he has to adjust to anything that happens—if the snap rolls back to him on the ground—whatever."

The reason Miller kicks barefoot is no more exotic than the punter himself. "I used to live on a farm," he says, "and I used to go around barefoot all the time, y'know, in the country. I'd get a ball and kick it up to myself or to my brother and I guess I just got used to kicking that way. I guess I've got a better feel for the ball. I had to wear a shoe in high school, they had a rule about it. If I tried it three weeks with a shoe on, I guess I could do just as good, but it feels better this way right now."

For much the same reason, Miller is loath to leave his football pants in the locker room and so takes them home with him every night after practice. "I started that when I was a freshman," he says. "I like pants that are a little bigger, not tight on me. I found a pair I liked, and I was afraid if I gave 'em back in, I'd get a different pair the next week."

A two-step punter who blasts the ball off the top of his arch, Miller has never hurt himself kicking barefoot, although he admits, "I've got a knot on both my big toes, and when I stomp 'em, boy it hurts." Even so, Miller probably is in less peril on the field than on the sidelines, where, during one joyful, jumping moment that followed an Ole Miss touchdown, a teammate stepped on him.

About the only coaching Miller has gotten is from Pope, who has improved his sideline kicks with a technique that is much the same as spot bowling. Miller goes for the coffin corner whenever Ole Miss is at its 35-yard line or beyond, and while the distance is no big problem, aiming at a target that far downfield can be. Consequently, Pope has instructed Miller to use the inside shoulder or headgear of an offensive lineman as a more immediate target.

Through Mississippi's first four games, Miller has punted for a 40-yard average on 28 punts, and it is doubtful that he will be able to match last season's average because this year college football adopted the same field-goal rule used in the NFL—the ball is returned to the line of scrimmage after a miss. Fewer long field-goal tries means more short position-punts.

Nonetheless, Miller remains a crowd pleaser, which almost was his downfall earlier this season. In the Friday warm-ups that preceded Ole Miss' season opener against Memphis State at Jackson, a crowd was in the stands just to watch Miller boom them out. "He was airmailing the thing," Pope says, "and the people were applauding. The problem was, he shouldn't have kicked more than 15 times, and he kicked a lot more than that. He may, in fact, have kicked himself out, because his first kick in the game was one of the worst he's ever had, and they ran it back for a touchdown. He does attract a crowd, so we have to watch him."

A lot of opponents will be watching Miller, too, but don't count on much applause from them. Having Miller punt against you is like waiting for the other shoe to drop.