GREEN BAY – As rookie punter Justin Vogel prepares to make his regular-season NFL debut on Sunday, he feels as prepared as he can be.
“I’m not going to have any more nerves for the game than I did,” Vogel said this week. “All four preseason games, I was basically kicking for my job. Now that I have it, I’m just doing the same. I’m still kicking for my job. Nothing’s really changed.”
Vogel, an undrafted prospect from Miami, didn’t have any head-to-head competition in training camp. But he was basically punting against any and every punter who might become available at roster cut-down time.
Nothing was secure until Vogel turned in undoubtedly his best preseason outing in the finale last week vs. the Rams, a seven-punt effort that featured multiple hang times of five-plus seconds with good placement and direction.
Three were fair-caught at 40-plus yards, and another went out of bounds at 44. Two boots sailed 51 and 55, both returned for negative yardage.
Only his last punt of the night was low and wobbly, and it was returned 14 yards. Still, he posted a gross average of 46.9 yards and a net of 45.7, and his phone didn’t ring on cut-down day.
It was a pressure-packed outing, and Vogel delivered. It won him a job, even if it didn’t win him much margin for error. That’s just the reality of the NFL for unproven players, but Vogel has given himself as strong a building block as he could.
“It’s not like I’m a seasoned veteran with a big contract where this game you can mess up in, and you can still make the team,” he said. “The Rams game was a big game. If I would have done poorly, I probably wouldn’t be on the team right now. So I feel like I’ve been in some pretty high-stress situations.”
That certainly doesn’t change on Sunday, either. But to see Vogel progress through training camp and the preseason and finish on his highest note is a positive sign.
Now it’s about carrying it over and continuing to ascend when, from a team perspective, the stakes are higher and the results matter more. He’s still punting for himself, but he has an entire team relying on him to a greater degree now.
“It’s good to have the preseason games. We don’t get those in college,” he said. “Getting used to the stadiums, getting used to the NFL setting is nice. I’ll be more comfortable.
“The only difference is they’re going to capitalize on mistakes that I make greater than they would in preseason. Missed kicks, these guys will punish you for it.”
Especially the Seahawks. Return man Tyler Lockett is one of the best in the league, a first-team All-Pro selection as a specialist in 2015 and a second-teamer on kickoff return in 2016.
At 5-10, 182, Lockett possesses shiftiness and breakaway speed that are tough to corral. He returned both a punt and kickoff for a score two seasons ago and had another punt return of 60-plus last year.
“He’s not a real big guy, but he’s fast and hard to catch,” special teams coordinator Ron Zook said on Thursday. “He gets north in a heartbeat.
“(Vogel) knows we have to keep the ball away from him. He’s a guy that can take it the distance.”
For Vogel, the change to veteran long-snapper Brett Goode went smoothly after he was brought in midway through camp. As the holder on field goals, Vogel has had no hiccups since Goode’s arrival, and he came to trust Goode in punt formation very quickly.
“Brett is a very experienced guy. The first snap we had was off in warm-ups, and the next one was perfect,” Vogel said. “He knows how to adjust it himself.”
All that’s left now is for Vogel to adjust to the real games, the brighter lights, and the greater scrutiny.
“Consistency is the thing that keeps them in the league, and they understand that,” Zook said. “Justin has worked hard at it. He punted the ball extremely well today. He knows it can’t be five out of six, it has to be six out of six.”