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    By Bill Doolittle

    If Mason King is coming on the field, you know there’s trouble on the waterfront.

    But don’t worry.

    King is the punter par excellence for the University of Louisville’s football Cardinals. If he’s headed onto the field, it means the vaunted Lamar Jackson-led Louisville offense has somehow gotten itself bogged down, unable to make a first down, and now must punt the ball to the enemy. Or maybe even worse. Jackson and his teammates may have gotten themselves trapped near their own goal line. Now, angry young men on the opposition are digging in to tear through any kind of opening to wreak havoc on King and set up a score for themselves. Teeth bared, eyes just slits.

    But here comes King, running onto the turf, handing out a high five to Jackson, as in: Don’t worry, Lamar. I’ve got your back. “It’s just something I always do,” King says. “Lamar and I came in together in the same class, and just from all the conditioning and the workouts we’ve always been close. It’s just kind of our routine.”

    Then King’s punt. Booming up, up and away, so that at its pinnacle the ball is sailing along at eye level with fans high in the stands. And suddenly Louisville is out of trouble.

    That’s the goal of every punter, of course, and most top college teams have skilled punters. But King is almost a weapon. In his first season, 2016, he averaged 43 yards a punt, the highest in U of L history — and right up with the best in the college game. By the end of the season he was blasting them 50 yards a kick. Towering, with plenty of hang time for his teammates to run under the ball and force the opponent’s return man to settle for a fair catch. That’s half the field gained in one play.

    In a thrilling, nationally televised game against Clemson in 2016 that went back and forth and up and down the field, King, in just his fifth college game, averaged 48 yards a punt, with two of his kicks carrying 60 yards. Louisville lost that game 42-36, but both teams prospered in the rankings, with Clemson eventually winning the national championship. (This season, Clemson trounced Louisville 47-21 at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium. King punted eight times for a 43-yard average.) King remembers that game last season, played on a clear October night before 83,000 fans at Clemson’s “Death Valley” stadium in South Carolina. King rocked back to get leverage, watched his foot explode through the ball. “I knew that when I looked up it was gonna be a bomb,” he says of his first punt that night. “And I was like, ‘All right, I can do this!’” 

     

    King has been building up to this since his first day of grade-school flag football at St. Margaret Mary in Louisville. He played receiver but would also be the kicker. “What I would do is, I would just toe-kick it,” King says. “I don’t know — I just liked to kick stuff when I was younger.”

    When tackle football came along, a coach asked his players who’d like to punt. King stood up. A friend of the coach’s, a former punter from Western Kentucky University, taught King how to properly drop the football. King remembers kicking a long one against St. Patrick and being approached by former Notre Dame player Rick Buehner, who was at the game. “And he told me, ‘Man, if you stick with this, you’ve got potential to kick in high school,’” King says.

     King played wide receiver and punter at St. X, one of the top high school teams in Kentucky. By his senior year, he thought punting might be his ticket to playing in college. One of his coaches drove King over to U of L and introduced him to some assistant coaches. They showed King around campus and urged him to enroll and become a “walk-on” with the team. Which isn’t the same as being recruited and offered a scholarship. Funny about that. As valuable as punters and placekickers are to college teams, few are offered scholarships. Most enroll, then go out for the team as a walk-on. “You know,” King says, “I think it’s one of those deals where they want to see if you can do it with the head coach standing there and you’ve got full gear on.

    “I see guys all the time who can punt the ball out standing in shorts and a T-shirt,” King says. “But really, until you get the whole experience: the helmet, the shoulder pads, being tired from lifting weights and conditioning — and you’ve got the head coach standing right there — that’s when you earn it.”

    And King has. He’s now a team captain with a scholarship. 

     

    Louisville has proved an excellent fit for the 6-foot-2, 211-pound King. His grandfather Bob King is in the U of L Hall of Fame as a basketball center, as is uncle Jerry King, who starred with Wes Unseld and Butch Beard in the ’60s.

    King got a year to perfect his punting as a “redshirt” freshman (a second-year student in his first year of athletic eligibility). Punter Josh Appleby mentored him, and he talked with former Louisville placekicker Art Carmody. He continues to train with David Akers, a former U of L kicker who had a 15-year career in the NFL. “He tells me to zone in on every punt and block everything else out,” King says. “Slow the game down in your mind and just zone in on that one punt.”

    King also learned another position: holding the ball for the placekicker on field-goal tries and extra points. It’s a job often handled by quarterbacks with ball-handling experience. But King has partnered well with Louisville’s left-legged kicker Blanton Creque and freshman long-snapper Mitch Hall. It’s a timing and finesse thing, under intense game pressure. Two sophomores and a freshman.

    Speaking of finesse, not every King punt is for distance. Punting from inside mid-field, King will take a little off to try to drop the ball inside the 10-yard line, forcing opponents to return the ball starting close to their own goal line. Trouble territory. Or he’ll get the ball to kind of drop dead where it hits. “The ideal for that,” King says, “is to hit the bottom of the ball and when it checks the ground it’ll kind of spin back, and pop up, to pin a team deep.” Sounds like Minnesota Fats, stroking the cue ball with just the right English to tick it off the rail for a perfect leave. 

     

    King still remembers the first punt of his college career. It was last year, fourth down in the season opener against Charlotte. “I usually line up 15 yards behind center. That’s where coach Petrino wants me,” King says. “I was so nervous I lined up at 12 yards and almost got the punt blocked. I was shaking like a leaf.”

    Not so much anymore.

    “Believe it or not, I actually get more nervous in practice than I do the games,” King says. “I know that sounds crazy, but in a game I’m just out there alone. There’s no one behind me. In practice, I’ve got five or six coaches with stopwatches, and they’re saying, ‘Alright, do this. Try this.’ Then I get flustered.”

    But in a game, it all melts away.

    “I just let it go,” King says. “It’s like, ‘All right! I’m about to get the team out of this.’”

     

    This story originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover Photo: Pexels.com

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