Ole Miss’ Smith put the “foot” in football
This is the Babe Ruth of Southeastern Conference punters self-description when recalling his days of sending footballs into orbit in the mid 1980s:
“I was a really good athlete who never considered myself a great punter.”
Yet almost 30 years after Ole Miss’ Bill Smith had punt returners backpeddling almost every time he swung his exceedingly strong right leg, the guy who hit more punts higher and deeper than anyone else in SEC history still holds five league records that will probably never be broken.
Longest punt in a game – 92 yards vs. Southern Mississippi, 1992.
Punting average in a game (minimum two attempts) – 84.5 on two punts vs. Southern Mississippi, 1982.
Most punts in a career, 50 yards or longer – 88 (1983-86). “The record I’m most proud of,” Bill says.
Most consecutive games with a punt of 50 yards or more – 32 (1983-86).
Most games averaging 40 or more yards – 36 (1983-86).
The latter three marks still remain as NCAA records, remarkable for a guy who was offered an Ole Miss scholarship sight unseen by then-Rebels’ coach Billy Brewer. “I had a lot of shortcomings,” says Bill, now 46, and a mortgage lender in New Albany, Ohio just outside of Columbus where he lives with his wife and 8-year old son. “I was slow getting the ball off, I had inconsistent drops and I was never good punting on windy days.
“But I had really good leg strength to compensate for the deficiencies, and it helped we had a group of punters and kickers at Ole Miss who all coached each other.”
Growing up in Little Rock, Bill was always the kid on the block who liked to pick up a football, kick it, pick it up again and try to kick in farther. Though he developed into a two-way football player for Mills High, playing tight end and defensive end, his punting talent was undeniable. He booted the ball so far, even in junior high school, he could have played for the varsity if Arkansas high school rules would have allowed it.
“I was a self-taught punter,” Bill says. “It was somewhat of a God-given talent, but I worked really hard to develop it. I never really had any coaching.”
Even with Bill coaching himself, he developed into a major college football and track and field (he was a 60-foot shot putter) prospect. He had 15 scholarship offers from such schools as Ohio State, Texas A&M, Oklahoma State and Houston. He thought he would get an offer to play for his homestate school, Arkansas, the dream of he and many in-state kids. “Arkansas recruited me heavily all along and I thought they were going to offer me a scholarship,” Bill says. “When they said they wanted me to walk-on, that was almost like a slap in the face, an insult.
“My high school coach knew David Hines, the wide receiver coach at Ole Miss. He called Coach Hines, we sent Ole Miss some film and Billy Brewer offered me a scholarship over the phone before I even had a chance to visit.”
On film, Brewer saw Bill pound punt after punt, including his first 70-yarder. “My junior year against Benton, I had a 78-yard punt,” Bill says. “When you hit a punt like that, it’s like a really good golf swing. “It feels like no effort at all. Then, you look up and see this missile taking off. Just like that kick against Southern Miss. “That kick” is still hard to conceive almost three decades later. Here’s the situation that day, Oct. 20, 1984, in Mississippi Memorial Stadium with Ole Miss taking on in-state rival Southern Mississippi:
Bill had yet to punt in the game when he trotted on the field in the fourth quarter with the Rebels backed up at their own 8. He dropped back the normal 15 yards, putting him three yards deep in the end zone. He took the snap, he took three steps (“I took more time than most punters getting off punts,” he says) and swung his right foot into the ball with a follow-through that extended over his head like a flexible ballerina. When he looked up and saw the flight of the ball, and well, even he was amazed. The Southern Miss returner looked like a baseball centerfielder frozen in his tracks, someone knowing a ball had just been hit so hard that he could do nothing but turn and watch a home run leave the park. “The Southern Miss returner, standing at the 40-yard line, didn’t even turn around,” Bill says. “He just watched it sail over his head. That’s when I knew it was a really good punt.
“The ball landed on the 18-yard line and it rolled all the way to the wall behind the end zone.”
The end result was the 92-yard punt (punts are measured from the line of scrimmage, not the spot a punter actually contacts the ball). If you consider Bill struck the ball from his own goal line and it rolled to the wall behind the end zone, his punt sailed 82 yards in the air and eventually traveled more than 120 yards. “Everybody mobbed me when I got to the sideline,” Bill remembers. “I didn’t put two and two together on how far the punt was until I got off the field and heard the public address announcer say it was 92 yards.”
Bill’s day wasn’t finished. In what was a 13-10 Southern Miss victory, he punted one more time. His second punt traveled just 77 yards. “It wasn’t actually a good punt, sort of hit the side of my foot, a spiral that didn’t turn over but hit and bounced quite a ways to get the job done,” Bill says. And Bill’s day was done. Two punts for an average of 84.5.
As Bill’s college career progressed, so did his confidence and reputation as a weapon just as dangerous as a fast running back or a quarterback with a big throwing arm.
“Anytime I stepped on the field, I literally felt I could change a game and I took a lot of pride in that,” Bill says. “With a good snap and if I hit the ball good, I knew I could flip a field and change a game. “A lot of punt return teams started cutting down my average by lining up 50 yards downfield, which many times eliminated the roll that most punters get for really long punts. Most of my punts were caught in the air.”
When Bill’s college career ended, he was a two-time all-American and a two-time first-team All-SEC selection with a boatload of NCAA and SEC records.
The resume was good enough to get him drafted in the seventh round by the Green Bay Packers. Bill played briefly with the Packers, and then Tampa Bay, gradually realizing his three-step punting (the pros tried to get him to become a two-step punter) wasn’t suited for the NFL. “My game didn’t translate well to the NFL, because I wasn’t good at directional punting and I was a little slow at getting the ball off, ” says Bill, who had seven punts blocked during his Ole Miss career, three in each of his last two seasons. “Coaches back then always wanted punters to kick out-of-bounds inside the other team’s 20, and I was never good at that. I never tried to be good doing it. “We never worked on that at Ole Miss, because what I did worked. I’d just try to hang the ball as high as I could. I had about a five-second hang time, and lot of times our punt coverage team would just run under my punts and catch them.”
That method was darned successful. He had 65 punts during his college career that were blown dead inside the opponents’ 20, and most of them didn’t roll out-of-bounds. But Bill’s NFL struggles convinced him his putting days were over. He admits he was “a bit burned out,” so he moved on to start a new career away from the game, something he has never regretted.
He remains a huge college football fan and says whenever he watches games, the first thing he zeroes in on are the punters. “There are some great punters in the college game,” Bill says. “The one thing I don’t like is the rugby punt. I can understand using it if you don’t have a very good punter. But if you have a great punter, why use a rugby punt? Let him kick. Let him launch a 70-yarder. When you have an NFL-caliber punter, you let him punt. You don’t see rugby punting in the NFL.”
Bill’s Ole Miss school record of career average of 44.3 (a minimum of 250 punts) is definitely being threatened by current Rebels’ junior punter Tyler Campbell, who’s averaging 45.6 yards on 133 attempts through the first 28 games of his college career.
Last year, Campbell led the nation in punting averaging 46.4 yards. This season, he’s second in the SEC and 10th nationally at 46.7 per kick with a long of 73 yards against Brigham Young, the 12th longest in Ole Miss history.
There are some similarities between Bill and Campbell. Bill was 6-3, 217, in college and Campbell is a big boy also at 6-2, 227. Campbell is a former Little Rock high school product (Catholic) like Bill.
“I think Tyler is a great kid,” Bill says. “He and I are actually Facebook friends. He’s got all the talent in the world, and he’s gotten quicker from last year to this year at getting the ball off. He’s very smooth with it.
“He should break a lot of my records before he leaves Oxford.”
The one record of Bill’s that Campbell won’t break is an unofficial one. It happened in the pregame warmups of the 1986 Arkansas State in Bill’s senior year in Oxford.
“I punted a ball standing in our end zone that hit an Arkansas State player in the helmet standing at the other 1-yard line,” Bill says. “A 100-yard punt in the air.
“It’s my proudest moment in college. I just stood there laughing.”
There’s your challenge Tyler. Good luck topping that.