Josh Growden will never forget his first college punt.
It went 23 yards.
“We were doing that rugby-style punt,” LSU’s Australian-born punter said. “We didn’t want (Wisconsin) knowing I was doing that so I didn’t practice it in pregame, so my first punt was my first kick of the day like that.”
No warmup, no practice, no nothing. The coaches’ desire for secrecy backfired, and Growden finished that season-opening loss against Wisconsin averaging 32 yards per boot — a sour career start.
Oh, how things have changed.
No. 19 LSU (5-3, 3-2 Southeastern Conference) takes with it to Arkansas on Saturday one of the nation’s most elite defenses, yes, but the Tigers also possess something else: one of the country’s hottest punters. Growden, a redshirt freshman, rebounded from that shaky season opener and now averages 42.45 a punt, good for 44th nationally.
Exclude the season-opening loss to the Badgers, and Growden is averaging 44.5 yards a punt, putting him in the top-20 nationally.
“I knew that’s not how I punt,” Growden said of the Wisconsin game. “I was like, ‘If that’s the worst, that’s fine.’ I knew it was only going to get better. I obviously wanted to do better for the fans and everything like that. I kind of forgot about it and moved on. That’s what you’ve got to do.”
Growden punted five times this season for less than 32 yards, and three of them came in the season opener.
“There’s a lot of things that went into that Wisconsin game,” he said. “It was pretty windy, and it was my first game.”
He had eight punts of 50 or more yards in the past 33 attempts, including three punts against Southern Miss that went for 56, 50 and 68 yards. He hasn’t executed a rugby-style punt since the loss at Auburn, as he gets comfortable in a traditional formation.
“It’s just kind of what the situation presents itself,” he said. “There’s a couple of variables. I’ve been hitting the normal spirals pretty well. We’ve been sticking with that.”
Read and react
LSU linebacker Duke Riley doesn’t savor any one tackle he makes during a game. He’s always thinking about the next play, he said.
True to form, Riley’s biggest play in a 10-0 loss to top-ranked Alabama was actually a series of three plays in the third quarter of a scoreless game, capped by a goal-line stand.
After the Crimson Tide connected on a 52-yard pass play inside the Tigers’ 10-yard line, the senior darted into the backfield on second down to help blow up a run play for no gain. On third down, he slammed Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts to the ground short of the goal line on a zone-read play.
The fourth-down play required Riley, who finished with nine tackles, and the LSU defense to read and react quickly. The Crimson Tide hurried to the line intending to run a similar play to the one before it.
When Alabama running back Damien Harris darted toward fellow linebacker Kendell Beckwith’s side, Riley knew what his next move needed to be.
“Honestly, we didn’t know the exact play they were running,” Riley said. “But we knew that they were going to try to hit us inside. And I knew that the quarterback was going to try to make a play. … As soon as I saw Kendell shoot the gap, I was like, ‘I know I've got to get over,’ because that’s very cloudy right there. I needed to go where it was clear.”
Beckwith anticipated the snap and pressed the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, safety Jamal Adams attacked off the edge and stuck his arm out, causing Hurts to stumble as he pulled the ball. That allowed Riley enough time to swarm Hurts for a loss of 5 yards.
“I was fired up to get the big fourth-down stop, but I really don’t even (know) the plays I make back-to-back,” Riley said. “I’m just always worried about the next one. If that wasn’t a fourth-down play, if it was a third, I would have made the next play. That’s just always going in my head.”