Virginia Tech punter Scott Demler heard the smattering of boos on Saturday at Lane Stadium when his first kick against Arkansas State traveled all of 22 yards. What those fans may not have realized, though, is that Demler might be more frustrated than them right now.
If there’s one point of contention during the Hokies’ businesslike 3-0 start to this season, it has been Demler’s struggles since winning the punting job out of training camp. He’s averaging just 34.6 yards on 13 punts so far, which ranks Virginia Tech 114th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools in yards per punt.
Throughout these early season struggles, Coach Frank Beamer has remained steadfast in his belief that Demler is the Hokies’ best punter. That, though, hasn’t stopped the coach from considering a wide receiver, a place kicker and a true freshman as potential replacements.
But it’s not the criticism or the threat of being benched that has Demler so annoyed this week. It’s the fact that he’s already pinpointed exactly what he’s doing wrong.
“It’s all in the drop, and right now my drop is just a little too high,” said Demler, a redshirt junior. “It’s not like I’m really far off. It’s just a matter of inches. I know I’m right there. When I go out there, I’m not even nervous. It’s just executing it. Before I go out there, I just need to go out there and say, ‘Drop the ball lower and hit it nice and easy.’ That’s what it really comes down to.”
Demler says when he holds the ball too high before he kicks, his punts tend to go straight up in the air and the ball doesn’t turn over properly. This week he’s focusing on driving the ball more while holding it lower.
Coach Frank Beamer met with Demler on Sunday to discuss his issues and told him, “If anything, you care too much.”
“His strengths, when he kicks a ball well, and I’ve seen him do it a lot, is he gets it about 40 yards with a lot of hang time, and that’s just perfect because there’s going to be a lot of fair catches,” Beamer said. “But now, to do that consistently and to get it in the direction that we were planning on kicking and all those things, that’s where we’ve got to get to. And I do believe we will.”
Considering all that Demler has overcome to become Virginia Tech’s starting punter, perhaps Beamer is right – he’s putting too much pressure on himself.
After Demler’s second day of preseason practice as a true freshman in 2008, the Washington Crossing, Pa., native learned he had Behcet’s Syndrome, an ailment that causes inflammation in his lower back. Doctors told him at the time he “might not be able to punt again or play any other sports that involve rotation of the back.”
After several years of intense rehab the pain isn’t as excruciating as doctors warned it would be, but Demler still feels it every morning. He has to sleep on his back with a special mattress, and takes about 12 pills of Advil per day.
Demler’s early results this season haven’t been all bad, though. He averaged 39 yards on three punts against East Carolina, and Virginia Tech ranks third in the country in terms of defending punts. Opponents have gained minus-nine yards on returns this year.
Then again, when you’ve had punts travel 20 yards (against Appalachian State), 30 yards (against East Carolina) and 22 yards (against Arkansas State) like Demler, it’s difficult for the other team to actually set up a return.
Because Demler has yet to average 40 yards over the course of an entire game, it has forced Beamer to look at alternatives even though he’s been hesitant to make a change. Last week, Beamer gave freshman Michael Branthover (DeMatha) a chance to compete for the starting job because of his strong leg, and on Tuesday he said senior place kicker Justin Myer had been practicing punts as well.
Wide receiver Danny Coale, who competed for the starting job during spring practice and training camp this year, said that while he still practices punting, “at this point I don’t expect to do it in a game.”
Beamer, though, has stuck with Demler so far, and since he hasn’t replaced him yet, there’s a good chance he’ll continue to ride out his new punter’s mistakes.
To his credit, Demler isn’t allowing the weekly competition, or the boo birds, get him down.
“It doesn’t really freak me out,” he said. “All punters can hit bombs is what it comes down to. All punters have a different trajectory angle. [Branthover] hits some real nice drives out there. My punting specialty is hitting 40-yard fair caught punts. So that’s what I do. If you’ve ever seen me punt, there are times you’ll see me hit 5.2, 5.3 [second] punts. I don’t see many other punters doing that. . . .
“I heard [the boos], but it doesn’t really affect me. The opinions I really care about are what the coaches think and what my teammates think and what my family thinks. As long as I’m doing my job and the coaches are happy, I’m happy. I don’t really care about anyone else.”