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BRYAN WAGNER : Hang Time May Decide If He Hangs On With Cowboys

Times Staff Writer

The National Football League, the poster proclaims, is the place for free agents.

And to prove it, there are photos of five current players who made NFL rosters via the free-agency route: Sam Washington of the Steelers, Mel Kaufman of the Redskins, Dave Krieg of the Seahawks, Zeke Mowatt of the Giants and Bill Bates of the Cowboys.

“Hold On To Your Dream!” the poster says.

The poster hangs in the offices of the Dallas Cowboys’ training headquarters. To the 60 free agents who have come to Cal Lutheran College hoping to make America’s Team, it is a reminder that some dreams can become reality.

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Bryan Wagner is one of those attempting to make the Cowboys as a free agent. His hopes hang on how long he can keep the ball hanging.

Wagner, 23, an All-American punter from Cal State Northridge, is one of five remaining punters--four of whom are free agents--battling to replace Danny White.

Dallas Coach Tom Landry has said that he wants someone other than White--the Cowboy’s starting quarterback--to do the punting.

“It’s up to someone to prove that they’re consistent enough to earn a roster spot,” said Alan Lowry, the Cowboys’ special teams coach,

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So far, there appears to be no clear leader in the punting derby.

“It looks like it’s going to be a tremendous competition,” said former NFL kicker Ben Agajanian. “Wagner has constantly been a little bit better than the others.”

Agajanian, who is a kicking consultant for the Cowboys, charts the punters’ progress every day. The competitors get 20 kicks a day that are judged on distance and hang time.

Wagner averaged 1,150 points a day during the first week of camp to lead the group of punters that included Kevin Buenafe of UCLA and Chip Andrews of Georgia, both of whom have since been released.

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Wagner lifted his daily average to 1,176 last week during the second week of camp, again edging out the others.

“I feel a little bit confident about making the team,” Wagner said. “But I’m also taking a back seat to that and saying, ‘Well, I still have a lot of hard work to do because there are some good punters here.’ ”

He was certainly among the best in Northridge history.

In three years as a Matador, Wagner set school records for punts (203), yardage (8,762) and average (43.4). In 1983, he punted 73 times for a 43.7 average, another school record.

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He did the place-kicking for Northridge, making 25 of 41 field-goal attempts and 62 of 65 points after touchdown. Last season, he kicked a 54-yard field goal against Northern Arizona. Three times he earned All-American honors.

A day after being passed over in April’s NFL draft, Wagner signed a three-year contract with the Cowboys. The contract is not guaranteed, but Wagner says he received a $6,000 bonus for signing, and is making a “little bit more” than the NFL minimum of $55,000.

“It’s more money than I’ve ever been paid before in my life,” he added with a laugh. “I’ve never really had a steady job.”

Agajanian thinks the 6-2, 197-pound kicker may find his first steady job with the Cowboys.

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“He has all the tools necessary to be an excellent punter in the NFL,” Agajanian said. As for making the Cowboys, Agajanian said Wagner’s chances are “excellent.”

The other free agent punters are Mike Saxon, Tom McCarthy and Scott Livingston. Also in the competition is John Warren, a three-year veteran who punted 21 times for a 38.0 average for the Cowboys last season.

Warren, who reported to camp last week, has an edge over the other four because of his experience.

“A rookie (punter) really has to be exceptional to beat out a veteran,” Agajanian said.

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Lowry said the list of potential punters will probably be reduced by the time the Cowboys open the preseason Aug. 10. Having five punters at a game would make it hard for someone to stand out, Lowry said.

As for Wagner, Lowry said, “He has shown the things needed. At times he’s punted well under pressure, but other times he hasn’t.”

Wagner said he has improved since the beginning of camp.

“The first couple of days I was a little nervous,” he said. “But I’ve relaxed and settled down. I’m getting a lot more consistent.”

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The punting statistics bear him out.

During the first week, Wagner averaged 44.9 yards a kick with an average hang time of 4.67 seconds. Last week, he increased those figures to 46.8 and 4.72. He also improved his average on NFL-standard punts from 39% to 52%. Any punt that goes farther than 40 yards and has at least a 4.5 hang time is considered an NFL punt.

If he doesn’t make the team, Wagner is hoping that he at least makes it to the preseason.

“Then someone else might see me and pick me up,” he said. “If I get cut tomorrow, my agent should be on the phone the next day, getting me a tryout.”

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But Wagner isn’t worried about impressing another team. He wants to shine on the field at Cal Lutheran. Wagner played at Cal Lutheran for one season before transferring to Northridge.

“Playing here makes me feel at home,” Wagner said. “Heck, this is where I lived for a year.”

A job with the Cowboys would make it a permanent summer home.


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