Alan Sadler remembers walking into fall camp feeling rather confident. He had improved his punting and had rejected overtures from several major league baseball teams, choosing, instead, to return for his fourth year of football at the University of Maryland.
"Before I could get on campus, people kept telling me about some freshmen kicking the hell out of the ball," Sadler said last week. "Then, one of the trainers walks up and says, 'How are your hands?' I said, 'What are you asking me about my hands for?' He said, 'The way these freshmen are kicking, you might have to move back to receiver.'
"The coaches said we'd have to kick competitively every day. And I told them okay, it's only going to make me a better punter," said Sadler, from Crossland High School.
The freshmen everyone kept telling Sadler about are both walk-ons--Darryl Wright, an honorable mention all-America from De Matha, and Ray Maragni, a three-time high school all-America pole vaulter from Seton Hall Prep in New Jersey. Maragni averaged 44 yards per punt his senior year. Wright, who turned down scholarship offers from Temple and North Carolina State, averaged 43 yards.
But Sadler made the most of the challenge, and Coach Bobby Ross said yesterday--on Sadler's 22nd birthday--that he had won the competition and will again be the team's starting punter when the season opens Saturday afternoon at Vanderbilt.
Sadler had a 60-yard punt in the team's final scrimmage last week, and punted very well in the last four practices. "Alan Sadler has come on in the last week to be the kind of punter we hoped he could," Ross said yesterday. "There was a time, when we first started practice, when he wasn't hitting the ball that well. But he's hitting it farther and higher now than at any time last year."
Sadler's improvement can be traced directly to Dick Johnson, who has tutored several NFL kickers, including Nick Lowery of the Kansas City Chiefs. Johnson, who has worked with all the punters and Maryland place-kicker Jess Atkinson, eliminated Sadler's three-step approach in favor of a two-step kick that improves a punter's release time.
"Mr. Johnson is almost hypnotic in his influence over Alan," said Atkinson, Sadler's roommate. "Whenever he's around, it seems Alan's going to punt the ball better." Sadler punted 56 times and averaged 38.6 yards last year. "I'm going to average 42 yards or better this year," Sadler said.
Johnson and Jeff Mann, Maryland special teams coach, have instructed Sadler to pay strict attention to mechanics. Sadler, 6 feet 5 and 215 pounds, has always been such a superb athlete he could compete on talent alone.
"He's got the worst punting form in the world," Atkinson said. "It's all leg. In baseball, he's all arm. If he ever learns how to use leverage with either, he'd be unstoppable. He's used to just going out and doing something without working at it. In intramural basketball, he can reverse dunk. We played softball this summer and he hit .800 and had 27 hits in a row."
Sadler's hitting is not what attracted scouts to the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament last spring. His fast ball was clocked at 92 mph at Chapel Hill. "I didn't even use my body properly," Sadler said. "I threw all arm, which makes me believe if I throw with my body next year (when he likely will start for the Terrapins' baseball team) I can reach 96, 97 mph."
After high school, the Baltimore Orioles drafted Sadler in the 25th round. Last year, at the ACC tournament, Sadler said several scouts asked him how much of a signing bonus it would take for him to forget football and school.
"I said, 'What round will I go in?' and they wouldn't tell me specifically, other than saying, 'Pretty high.' " Sadler said. "My parents, I think, wanted me to come back to school. And I wanted to come back for football and my girlfriend, Jeanne Jones.
"So I called the Cubs and Pirates the day before the draft and told them I wasn't going. The Milwaukee Brewers drafted me in the 17th round anyway. And they had the right on me until the other day. I can get drafted again after next baseball season."
Right now, Sadler's right foot (he has broken the left foot three times) is more important to Maryland than his right arm. "My first punt in my career was seven yards (against North Carolina) and my first punt last year was blocked by Penn State. I can't wait for the first punt."