Titans punter adds knuckle punt to repertoire

SportsFootballSuper BowlJacksonville JaguarsDerrick MasonAz-Zahir HakimJeff Fisher

Az-Zahir Hakim has heard about Craig Hentrich's knuckle punt and is more than confident he won't have any trouble catching one Sunday.

"I will take that knuckle punt and make it into a touchdown punt,'' the St. Louis Rams returner said.

Hakim will only get to see Hentrich's new specialty kick if the Rams force the Tennessee Titans into a pooch punt situation. That's when the punter turns the ball sideways in his hand, changing a spiraling punt into a twister that's best avoided.

Titans returner Derrick Mason almost broke a finger the first time he tried to catch Hentrich's knuckleball in minicamp, and calls it nasty.

"I don't even catch it anymore. I just let them hit the ground. The guy does an excellent job of placing the ball and kicking those knuckleballs,'' Mason said.

Hakim didn't get to see Hentrich's knuckler Oct. 31 when the Titans beat the Rams. The game was a series of long punts.

Hentrich's knuckle punt didn't exist until last summer. An All Pro coming off the best season by a punter since 1963, Hentrich was trying to correct his one weakness — downing punts inside an opponent's 20-yard line.

He toyed with several ideas and finally settled on holding the ball sideways. When he drops the ball from his hand for a kick, it takes off without any spin. The ball stays in the air long enough for the cover unit to run downfield where it usually bounces sideways out of bounds.

Hentrich showed off the punt to coach Jeff Fisher, who returned punts for the Chicago Bears in the 1980s, and he loved it.

"He was like, `Man this is going to win us a game.' I'm like whatever. I'm just trying to get the ball inside the 20.'' Then we were late in the game against Oakland, and one bounces off the guy's forehead,'' Hentrich said.

That was Dec. 9 when the ball bounced off Darrien Gordon's face mask, and Donald Mitchell recovered the fumble for the Titans. Reggie Barlow of Jacksonville also fumbled a punt last week in the AFC championship, one of six Jaguars' turnovers.

"That's the kind of weapon Craig is to us,'' Mason said. "At any given time, he can cause a turnover for you, and he's been doing an excellent job all year.''

Hentrich isn't punting as far this season, but he landed 35 of his 90 punts inside the 20 with only three touchbacks. No punter with at least 75 punts had fewer touchbacks.

"That kind of goes unnoticed because he does such a good job, but that's a big part of the game,'' kicker Al Del Greco said. "When you constantly keep pinning the opposition down there, it's hard for them to drive the length of the field and score.''

Hentrich also handles kickoffs with his strong leg, and made a punt of 50 yards or more in 10 games and in all three playoff games. He had a career-high 78-yarder on the artificial turf at Pittsburgh on Jan. 2.

Tennessee lured him away from the Green Bay Packers in 1998 a year after their Super Bowl victory with a contract that made him the NFL's first $1 million punter. Hentrich signed because he thought he saw potential.

"Picked the right one just in time, didn't I?'' he said with a smile.

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