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Making an impact: Jackson Rice's improvement fuels Oregon's punt team



After finishing his second season with the Oregon football team last January, Jackson Rice entered the offseason with a different perspective than he had in the past.

Two years removed from being tabbed the top-ranked prep punter in the country at Campolindo High School@@http://bleacherreport.com/articles/42558-jackson-rice-gives-oregon-ducks-verbal-agreement@@, something clicked with Rice in the wake of the Ducks’ BCS title game loss.

“I’m graduating next year in December,” Rice said, “and I kind of realized how fast this is going. I only have two years (left), and I’ve got to make an impact.”

Oregon’s specialist has proven more than capable of making an impact since Chip Kelly’s@@CE@@ head coaching tenure began three years ago. Aside from his duties as punter, the 6-foot-3, 225-pound junior@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=204773841@@ has been used in a variety of ways as the Ducks continue to incorporate numerous trick plays into their special teams arsenal.

(Alex McDougall/Oregon Daily Emerald)

As the holder for the Ducks’ field goal unit, Rice recorded his first collegiate rush in Oregon’s blowout victory at Colorado last weekend. Oregon saw a numbers advantage and decided to go for two early in the first quarter, with Rice powering his way to the end zone for a successful two-point conversion@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=205266631@@.

Rice has made those kinds of plays consistently when called on over the last two and half years, most notably a pair of fakes against Auburn on the biggest stage in college football — first,@@dead construction but idk how to rearrange without distorting meaning@@ the overhead flip to kicker Rob Beard@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=1550967@@ after Oregon’s first touchdown that went for two points and then a 11-yard pass on a fake punt to Marvin Johnson late in the third quarter@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?&DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=204990164@@.

Of course, nobody can forget Beard’s onside kick and recovery against Stanford last season, either.

Yet, while Rice, and Beard for that matter, are both physically capable of catching a team off guard with their natural athleticism, it’s the mental side of the game that has special teams coach Tom Osborne@@http://www.goducks.com/ViewArticle.dbml?DB_OEM_ID=500&ATCLID=1387913@@ impressed.

“We want guys that are football players that happen to kick it,” Osborne said. “I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody, but guys that are kicking geeks, they don’t have success at this level very often, because there’s too much pressure on them.

“Yeah they can kick in a kicking camp, but can they perform when there’s 60,000 people out there and the ABC camera is zoomed in on their face?”

Rice sure can, and this year he’s among the best in the nation at his craft.

Through the midway point of the season, Rice currently holds the fifth-best punting average in the country at 47.3 yards per kick with at least 25 punts, narrowly trailing the national leader, UTEP’s Ian Campbell (48.0).

That mark is a five-yard improvement from last year’s average (42.3 on 40 total punts)@@http://www.cfbstats.com/2010/leader/national/player/split01/category06/sort01.html@@ and nearly a seven-yard increase from his freshman season (40.5 on 61 punts)@@see previous@@.

Of Rice’s 27 punts in 2011, 11 have sailed over 50 yards (his long is 61), with 10 being fair-caught and just one touchback to his credit. And in the obscure world of punting, those are downright exceptional statistics.

“And we say all the time, ‘Fair catches win games,’” Osborne said. “When a guy punts a ball and a guy fair catches it, the crowd gets up and gets a Coke and the TV guys say, ‘We’re breaking to a commercial’ — nobody cares. (But) that wins you games.”

In playing for an Oregon team that consistently ranks near the top of the country in scoring offense, there are certainly days where Rice only sees the field for his point-after attempt holding duties. But those times when the Ducks don’t convert on third-and-long, they know they have a proven commodity waiting for his opportunity.

“The way he’s been able to pin people with his kicking has become a huge weapon for us,” Kelly said. “The good thing about Jackson is he has improved every year.”

Rice understands punting is a team-oriented unit because without an accurate snap, enough protection and speedy gunners on the outside, his job becomes almost impossible. Fortunately, Oregon has some of its best athletes competing on most every special teams unit. From Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas on the outside, to David Paulson and Boseko Lokombo@@all on roster@@ — and arguably most importantly, long snapper Drew Howell@@roster@@ — on the inside, the Ducks maintain a smoothly operating kicking unit.

Osborne and Rice have consistently praised the work of Howell not only this season, but year-round, saying he strives to be the absolute best at what he does.

“He just has one of the best focuses out of anyone I know,” Rice said. “He’s like me, where if (the snap is) not perfect, (he’s) mad. You want it to be perfect every single time, and he’s a perfectionist. He works on his trade better than anyone else I know.”

Rice, a former defensive end and tight end before he suffered a major left knee injury his junior year of high school, possesses that same work ethic. And every once in a while, it pays off in the form of trick play.

“I miss playing all the other positions,” Rice said, “but everything happens for a reason. I’m blessed to be where I am right now, and I’m definitely happy to be at one of the best programs in the nation.”

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