When LSU beat Alabama eight years ago, during the “Game of the Century” in Tuscaloosa, Zach Von Rosenberg sat in the stands near LSU’s band. He was 21 years old, in the midst of a professional baseball career and he never expected to one day play on that field.
But inside LSU’s practice facility earlier this week, Von Rosenberg walked toward a table, dropped his bags and discussed LSU’s plan to contain one of the best punt returners in the country, Jaylen Waddle.
As No. 2 LSU tries to beat No. 3 Alabama for the first time since 2011 in a game that sends the winner toward the Southeastern Conference championship — and the College Football Playoff — Von Rosenberg will return to Bryant-Denny Stadium, this time as LSU’s punter.
“That's actually kind of weird,” Von Rosenberg said.
In 2009, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted Von Rosenberg in the sixth round. He had twice earned Mr. Baseball in Louisiana, and though he had committed to pitch at LSU, he began his professional career.
Von Rosenberg spent the next six years trying to advance within the Pirates organization. He reached Class A but injuries gathered, derailing his career. He retired in 2014 with a 15-25 career record.
Two years later, Von Rosenberg walked onto the LSU football team. He thought about quarterback. He gained 40 pounds to play tight end. But he settled at punter, a position he had played at Zachary High School almost a decade earlier. Von Rosenberg redshirted his first season. In 2017, he became the starter.
Von Rosenberg averaged 44.6 yards per punt his first two seasons, making him one of the most consistent punters in the conference. He earned second-team All-SEC last year. He entered this season tied with former All-American Brad Wing for first in LSU history in career punting average.
Von Rosenberg punted 51 times last season. Whenever LSU fell into third-and-long situations, he expected the offense to gain a few yards and punt. Not this year.
With one month left in the regular season, LSU has converted 50.51% of third down conversions, ranking sixth in the country. Von Rosenberg has punted 26 times for an average of 43.5 yards. He’s careful about warming up too soon. Sometimes, people ask him if he feels upset not playing as much.
“No,” Von Rosenberg has responded, laughing, “that means we're winning.”
This weekend, Von Rosenberg will have to maintain his consistency. Waddle, a sophomore, has averaged 21.6 yards per return, the best in the country. His career average of 17.8 yards puts him atop Alabama’s all-time list. He earned SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after gaining 128 yards on four returns against Texas A&M.
“Hopefully,” Von Rosenberg said, “I can completely take Waddle out of the game.”
Von Rosenberg uses the same approach on every punt: place it between the numbers and the sideline. That won’t change against Alabama. He wants to pin Waddle on one side of the field, limiting his space.
“Zach's going to get the punt there,” said linebacker Patrick Queen, a member of the punt team. “I know he will."
Last week, one of LSU's coaches asked Von Rosenberg a question, one that put the last decade in perspective. The setting this weekend will take him back eight years, to that night he watched LSU play Alabama. He thought his future held professional baseball. He never expected this.
Now 29 years old, Von Rosenberg is the oldest player and the punter on a team hurtling toward the postseason. Alabama once again stands in its way, possibly in the second Game of the Century.
“What if I had told you when you were 17 years old as a baseball recruit,” the coach asked Von Rosenberg, “that you would play football at LSU and not baseball?”
“I would have laughed in your face,” Von Rosenberg responded. “That wouldn't have even crossed my mind.”