Calvin Lunkins can start to feel it the moment he takes his place on the field.
There’s something about looking across the line and seeing an opposing offense backed up into its own end zone to start a drive. He can taste the pressure. He’s already envisioning the stop.
The difference between starting a drive at the 20-yard line and the 5 may seem small over the course of a 100-yard field.
But the mental weight of knowing any slip, no matter how small, can quickly turn into a snowball of momentum for the other team.
“All we have to do is get a three-and-out, and we held position for the offense,” Lunkins said.
Luckily for Southern, Cesar Barajas is on its side.
Over the past two games, the sophomore punter downed five punts inside the 20-yard line. Last Saturday against Jackson State, Barajas averaged 47.5 yards on six punts, including two downed at the JSU 3 and 1. Both drives resulted in JSU punts from inside the Tigers’ 15-yard line.
For his efforts, Barajas was named SWAC Specialist of the Week, the first weekly award of his career.
But the real reward is knowing that the punter — typically a forgotten position — might just be the most underrated weapon on Southern’s sideline.
“It feels really good,” Barajas said. “It helps you realize the work you’re putting in is coming back to hep you out in the long run. You know the work you’re putting in is working out for you.”
Only two years since learning how to perform the on-the-move rugby-style punt, Barajas has mastered the art.
Out of high school, the Florida native was an average straight-forward punter. But coach Dawson Odums taught him the angled approach as a freshman.
It was a tough transition at first. Barajas saw little action last year behind a flurry of different punters as Southern struggled to find consistency at the position.
This year has been different, though. Barajas ranks third in the Southwestern Athletic Conference with a 41.7-yard average on 42 boots, leading Odums to praise Barajas on a weekly basis.
Barajas downed 13 of his punts inside the 20, and 12 went for more than 50 yards with a long of 69. In 2017, the Jaguars downed 16 punts inside their opponents’ 20 with an average of 35 yards per kick.
“Punting is really monotonous,” Barajas said. “You have to have confidence in yourself as far as being a punter. If the confidence level is low, you feel like you’re going to go out there and wonder if this is going to be a good ball or not. You can’t think about that. You have to be confident 24-7 and trust your process.”
Barajas' success has been a major factor in Southern’s resurgence this season.
Not only does the field position immediately after the punt give the defense a mental edge, but the Jaguars can often start their next offensive drive either close to or inside enemy territory.
Against Jackson State, Southern’s average starting field position was its own 41-yard line. The previous two games against Texas Southern and Prairie View saw the average SU drive begin past its own 30.
On top of giving the offense a shorter length to move the ball, it also prevents opposing defenses from getting the mental edge Southern sees.
“It’s a lot harder to run your offense when your back is against the wall,” center Jaylon Brinson said. “There’s only so much you can do with limited amount of space, especially with the quarterbacks taking drops, the running backs having to get depth and where the receivers are lined up. Backed up, there’s not really too much you can do except take shots or run the ball to get yourself out of that space to run your offense.”
SU Hall of Fame
The Southern University Sports Hall of Fame will hold its 36th annual induction ceremony on Friday night at the Belle of Baton Rouge Hotel and Casino. Thirty-five inductees will be enshrined into the Hall of Fame. For more information contact Charlie Granger at (225) 907-5830.