Steelers' rookie punter brings linebacker mentality
By Gary Mihoces, USA TODAY
LATROBE, Pa. — At a muscular 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, Pittsburgh Steelers rookie Daniel Sepulveda looks more like a linebacker than the punter he really is.
Sepulveda says he posted time of 4.43 seconds when running the 40-yard dash for NFL scouts this past spring. That's faster than either of the two linebackers the Steelers drafted with their first two picks this year, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley.
Bob Ligashesky, Pittsburgh's new special teams coach, acknowledges Sepulveda is a different looking punter.
"When I first saw him, I thought he was on the cover of Muscle & Fitness (magazine)," says Ligashesky. "He's a great-looking kid, very strong. But he's worked to be that way."
The Steelers figure to be counting on the 23-year-old left-footed punter from Baylor. The only other punter here is Mike Barr, who was in the Steelers camp in 2004 and 2005.
In the draft, the Steelers sent a sixth-round pick to Green Bay to move up seven spots in the fourth round and take Sepulveda. They cut veteran punter Chris Gardocki.
"It's only natural to feel a little bit nervous," says Sepulveda. "But pressure and feeling all that kind of stuff are products of your preparation. If you feel like you're prepared … it's just a matter of executing."
At Baylor last season, Sepulveda became the first two-time winner of the Ray Guy Award as college football's top punter. A four-year starter, he averaged 45.2 yards per punt. He averaged 46.5 last season despite offseason surgery to repair a torn knee ligament in his non-kicking leg, an injury sustained playing pickup basketball.
When he arrived at Baylor a freshman walk-on in 2002, Sepulveda hadn't punted since eighth grade. His previous season as a 6-1, 180-pound linebacker at Highland Park High School in Dallas had been cut short by a back injury.
By the time he arrived at Baylor, where his older brother Stephen was a three-year starter at linebacker, he had grown to 6-2, 220. "But when I walked on as a linebacker, I had very little experience at that position," he says.
He noticed Baylor's freshman punter was struggling. So he kept asking the special teams coach to take a look at him as a punter.
"He finally said OK, but you don't really expect a linebacker to be able to punt," says Sepulveda.
At that stage, he wasn't.
"I showed leg strength, but that was about it. Unpolished, no idea, never had been coached before, didn't know what I was doing and it was pretty clear," says Sepulveda.
But the special teams coach praised his leg strength and said he might have a future if he worked on it. He went home to Dallas and worked with punting coach Rocky Willingham. That summer, he won the starting job at Baylor.
In practice Tuesday he worked on a special kick he does from inside the opponent's 40-yard line.
Adapted from Australian football, rugby, it's called the "Aussie roll." Instead of holding the ball with the point facing toward the goal line, Sepulveda holds it with the point facing down. When he kicks it, the ball rotates like a kickoff instead of sailing like a punt.
It is designed to hit near the goal line and bounce up or back. In practice Tuesday, Sepulveda consistently had it bounce that way.
At Baylor, Sepulveda made some big hits covering his own punts. "Punting is coverage also," says Ligashesky.
"After the kick, he'll also be involved in the coverage. But let's hope he doesn't have to make too many of those tackles."
Sepulveda had as a Baylor junior when, in addition to punting, he played on the other special teams.
"That's the most fun I've ever had in terms of playing," he says.