MADISON, Wis. — It’s no secret quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers garner the vast majority of praise on the football field. Scoring points, after all, make the highlight reels spin.
Defensive linemen, linebackers and cornerbacks collect their share of recognition, too. Brute force and big hits elicit oohs and aahs in football stadiums across the country.
But if it’s possible for a player who only sees the field a handful of times per game in relative obscurity to be a team’s most valuable player, Wisconsin punter Drew Meyer certainly is making his case.
Although his kicks go largely unnoticed to the average fan, he has become one of the most vital components to the Badgers’ success. Through five games, Meyer has punted 31 times for an average of 6.2 per outing. Among 93 punters who have kicked enough this season to meet the national standard, only eight have punted more per game than Meyer.
“You prepare yourself to have to punt as many times as you’re going to have to in a game,” Meyer said. “It is kind of fun to get out and contribute. I definitely would like to be out there a little bit less because normally that means the offense is doing a little bit better.”
It isn’t simply that Meyer has kicked often that provides reason for MVP consideration. He also has kicked quite well.
Meyer ranks 39th nationally in punting average at 42.8 yards per punt, good for third among Big Ten punters. He earned Wisconsin’s special teams MVP for his performance against Nebraska, when he punted seven times and averaged 46.7 yards per kick. He downed three kicks inside the 20-yard-line.
“Drew Meyer has been exceptional,” Badgers coach Bret Bielema said this week. “I can’t say enough about what he’s done to prepare himself. He really took it as a challenge all summer and all fall camp. (He is) doing a really good job.”
Considering everything else that has gone wrong for Wisconsin this season — field goal and kickoff miscues, offensive line woes, quarterback uncertainty — Meyer’s consistency has been a relief.
During Wisconsin’s spring game in April, he did not demonstrate the same consistency. Meyer punted eight times that day for an average of 35.9 yards, although rain, cold and wind made conditions far from ideal. His first punt traveled just 25 yards.
“I was a little disappointed just because I really tried to push myself and strive for perfection, try to do the best,” Meyer said. “The first punt was definitely a little rough. It was just a good learning experience in general.”
Wisconsin co-defensive coordinator Charlie Partridge, who also works with the team’s specialists, said Meyer made minor tweaks to his game in the offseason, and the results have been favorable.
“His drop was high, which creates variations on what happens when the ball hits his foot, so we lowered that,” Partridge said. “And he got his footwork under control. His steps were too big and he shortened his footwork. … To his credit, this summer he did a great job cleaning up a few fundamental things. He’s been a great weapon for us so far.”
Meyer, a redshirt freshman, has filled in seamlessly for graduated senior Brad Nortman. Nortman, now with the Carolina Panthers, finished his career ranked third in school history in average yards per punt at 42.1. And Meyer is kicking at a much higher rate than Nortman because the offense has sputtered this season.
For comparison’s sake, Nortman punted 10 times through the first five games a year ago — 21 fewer than Meyer through the same time frame. Nortman punted 46 times the entire year, or 3.3 attempts per game.
The reason for Meyer’s increased opportunities is obvious: After leading the nation last year in third-down conversion rate (54.7 percent), the Badgers rank a measly 112th out of 120 FBS teams (29.4 percent).
This isn’t the first time Meyer has filled the shoes of a big-time kicker or punter. He spent his first two years of high school at Hartland Arrowhead (Wis.) behind Jeff Budzien, who now kicks for Northwestern.
“It’s kind of fun because I feel like I’ve almost been in that situation,” Meyer said. “It’s definitely a lot bigger now because you’re in front of 80,000 people. You’re on national TV. But that really helped me learn in high school.
“You really understand you’re your own player and while you have great talent, too, you’re somebody different. You might not hit the same ball, but you can try to strive to be as productive, or even more productive. If you put in the work and the effort, it’s going to pay off.”
So far, his work has paid off, even if Wisconsin would like to see him on the field less frequently.