Football lore preaches that the position most vulnerable to humiliation is cornerback, because the poor fellow often has to chase the receiver who has just beaten him far enough for everyone in the stadium to get a long look as his number. As Maryland's Sean Starner will testify after his two most recent games, punter is a close second.
By his estimation, Starner has been afflicted six times with what also drives golfers batty -- the shanks. The worst came on consecutive kicks a week ago against Georgia Tech, when the ball fluttered sideways off his foot and went just eight and 14 yards. The eight-yarder helped the Yellow Jackets to a touchdown that gave them an 11-point lead at halftime of a game they eventually won, 49-31.
"I hope God doesn't give me any more," Starner said. "I think six in two games is enough."
This was not funny, of course, but the blunt admission by a scholarship punter -- six shanks in two games -- got him laughing and he added: "That's enough for a whole season, or maybe two."
Whether Starner, a redshirt junior, will get a chance at redemption is uncertain. That's because Coach Ron Vanderlinden gave freshman Brooks Barnard a chance to win the position this week in practice and, if successful, to punt in today's game at Wake Forest.
"I think that's fair," Starner said. "He talked with me [before telling the media Tuesday] and I agreed with him. He said it's up in the air and may the best man win. . . . Coach wants to do what's best for the team. I feel like I've hurt the team the past two games, putting the defense in terrible field position."
Doug Mallory, the Maryland assistant in charge of the punt team, said Starner and Barnard have practiced well and the choice may not be made until after pregame warmups.
"Sean has the experience and maybe gets the ball off a little bit quicker," Mallory said. "But he needs to improve his consistency. He's had a good week of practice and is keeping a good attitude. Brooks has a cannon for a leg. Right now, he's in the thick of things."
Starner's efforts against West Virginia three weeks ago -- 30, 34, 24, 19 and 38 yards -- were frustrating, rather than critical, because the Terrapins were otherwise dominant in a 33-0 victory. Still, Vanderlinden mentioned in his postgame news conference that Starner needed to get better, and his first three punts against Georgia Tech were terrific -- 40, 40 and 39 yards, each high enough that only a fair catch was possible.
"I was nice and relaxed," Starner said. "Then everything just started going downhill after that. Even after looking at the tapes, I still don't know what happened. Maybe I was trying to rush myself too fast. Everyone said that when they saw me on [the ESPN telecast] they could just see the fear in my eyes. Tell you the truth, I just didn't know what went on during the game."
Barnard, a transfer from Oklahoma, took the final punt. It went 35 yards, but it was returned 13. So the net was an unacceptable 22 yards, although that was his first collegiate punt.
Punting came naturally for Starner. He picked up a football during pee-wee competition in his home town of Mechanicsburg, Pa., and punted on most of his teams ever since. He earned a scholarship to Maryland and paid his dues for a redshirt year and two others, punting just three times in 1997 and not at all last season.
After the embarrassment against Georgia Tech, which occurred on a Thursday night, Starner drove back home for the weekend but discovered that distance would not put the performance out of his mind.
"I'm the type of kid that things just stay with me," he said. "I thought about the things that I did and the things that I could correct. My parents were supportive. There always are friends who get on your back, but others support you.
"I'm trying to get my mental state back to where I was during two-a-days during the summer. Right now I'm taking practice as a game situation. But you don't really know what will happen until you get out there in front of 50,000 people."