The Pittsburgh Steelers won the Super Bowl last year despite one of the worst punting games in the NFL. But with highly touted Daniel Sepulveda recovered from ACL surgery, things are looking up.
Sepulveda, who enjoyed a strong rookie season in 2007 before missing all of last year, is booming the ball in practice.
So much so that the Steelers feel their punting game will again be an important weapon in controlling field position.
"We're looking forward to the same things we saw from him when he was a rookie," Steelers special teams coach Bob Ligashesky said Friday. "He provides us with field position and helps us in the coverage game as a punt unit. A punter like him allows you to do so much more with your coverage teams and be so much better with his hang time and direction."
A former two-time Ray Guy Award winner as the nation's best college punter and a player the Steelers traded up to draft in the fourth round two years ago, Sepulveda is a welcome re-addition to the reigning Super Bowl champions.
The Steelers ranked ninth in the NFL in net punting average during Sepulveda's rookie 2007 season at 37.9 yards per punt, but they lost him for the season on the second day of training camp in 2008.
Pittsburgh tried to get by with Mitch Berger and Paul Ernster, but fell to 30th in the league in yards per punt (39.8) and 25th in net average (35.6).
Sepulveda's absence was noticeable as the team went back-and-forth between Berger and Ernster and had a handful of embarrassingly short and shanked kicks.
"People talk about that, but we still won the Super Bowl," Sepulveda said. "I put the team in a bind and I felt bad for that. We were a week from the first game, and the punter goes down and I was the only one in camp, so I felt bad for that and for giving (kicker Jeff Reed) a new holder. He handled that as a professional, and Mitch and Paul both came in and got the job done.
"You can say whatever you want, but we ended up winning the Super Bowl. They did what I couldn't do."
Sepulveda had suffered a torn ACL in college and aggravated the injury not long after. He had considered surgery to correct the problem, and finally could no longer avoid it last summer.
Watching his team win the Super Bowl without him was difficult, Sepulveda said, but he learned from an additional year of being immersed in the NFL lifestyle.
Now he's said he's truly at 100 percent physically for the first time in years.
"I would say I'm a better kicker now, for sure," Sepulveda said. "This is the best I have punted in my life."
"He's got a strong leg and great accuracy with his kicks," said Anthony Madison, the team's leading special teams tackler last season. "As a coverage guy, you can't be anything but excited to have a guy like that. He's good for the team, period."