GREEN BAY – It’s not first and foremost on his mind, not with single-digit temperatures potentially awaiting him on Saturday night at Lambeau Field, but rookie punter Justin Vogel is aware of it.
The single-season franchise record for net punting average, a statistic that has been kept since 1976, is his for the taking over the final two games of 2017.
His 42.6-yard net average is well above the record 40.3 recorded by Tim Masthay in 2015, and after the frigid game Saturday, the Miami alum’s finale will be indoors in Detroit, so his odds look pretty good.
But as Vogel looks to finish out a promising rookie season on a strong note, the last two games aren’t as much about the record for him. They need to be a concluding statement that he’s Green Bay’s punter of the future.
“If I break the franchise record for net, that would be awesome, but I think I’m off to a good start either way,” Vogel said this past week.
As expected during his rookie season, Vogel has gone through his ups and downs. He’s had his share of booming punts – at least a half dozen near or longer than 60 yards – but he’s hit some wobblers, too.
One of his best attributes is the ability to shake off a less-than-desirable punt and hit a solid follow-up. By avoiding anything resembling a slump, he’s shown the mental makeup for the job as well as the physical tools.
“My thing is you can’t let your last kick affect your next one, good or bad,” he said. “It’s a separate play in itself. It’s similar across the board. If Aaron throws a pick, a guy misses a tackle, you can’t let that compound into more and more mistakes. You obviously try to bounce back.
“It’s more evident in kickers, because we only get about four or five reps, so one rep could really put you down if you let it get to you.”
Backed up into his end zone, Vogel delivered big punts late in games against Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay that gave the Packers chances to win close contests.
Special teams coordinator Ron Zook has continued to stress that he needs to keep his punts out of the middle of the field, but when the placement hasn’t been precise, the coverage unit has held up its end.
Vogel’s gross average is a modest 45.0, so to have a net of 42.6 speaks to his hang time, coverage, and certainly some effective placement. Opponents are averaging just 4.9 yards per punt return, fourth-lowest in the league, with a long of just 28.
Vogel also didn’t have a touchback until two weeks ago at Cleveland, and he’s placed 17 punts inside the 20 against just the one touchback this season.
“He’s still got to become more and more consistent, and he will. That’s the great thing,” Zook said. “The things we’ve done with our gunners have really helped him, too. When he’s had to come through, he’s come through, and I’m really proud of him.”
The coldest game he’s ever kicked in won’t be his only challenge this week. Minnesota returner Marcus Sherels doesn’t have a touchdown this season, but he’s returned five punts in his career for scores, including two a year ago. His average this year is a productive 10.0 with a long of 46.
Vogel thinks difficult conditions actually make him focus a little more, which is why some of his better games have been late in the season. Growth and maturity as a rookie likely plays into that as well.
“This is definitely the coldest game we’ve had so far,” Vogel said of the upcoming Saturday night. “It just makes the balls harder, makes it a little tougher. Any errors that you have will definitely show up more in cold weather vs. a warm-weather game.”
At this point, it would be a shame for Vogel to not finish well and let the franchise net record get away. He obviously wants it, but less for posterity’s sake and more for what it would say about him now.
“Whenever I broke a record at Miami, it was always a great feeling,” he said. “To be able to do that here, first year in the NFL, definitely shows all the hard work, and that I was meant to be here, meant to be an NFL punter.”