Vikings punter Britton Colquitt needed one season to break a franchise record that had stood since Bobby Walden set it 55 seasons earlier.
Known more for how his soft hands and calm demeanor as a holder righted kicker Dan Bailey’s wayward career, Colquitt also was a darn good punter upon his arrival in Minnesota 13 months ago.
His 42.6-yard net average was the best of his 10 seasons and .8 better than Walden’s franchise mark from 1964. Colquitt was the only NFL punter with more than 11 attempts to not have a touchback in 2019.
As for this year, well …
Let’s just say coach Mike Zimmer has needed more from the right leg of the most experienced player on the team. With a defense that’s been statistically bad, Zimmer has never needed a good punter more than right now.
Colquitt has punted 13 times. Nine of those punts have fallen short of last year’s net average. Six have been shy of a 38-yard net.
Overall, Colquitt ranks 27th in the league in net (37.5) and gross average (42.0). He’s had three punts downed inside the 20 and still no touchbacks.
“You know, he started off a little bit rough,” said Vikings special teams coordinator Marwan Maalouf. “After that first game, I think we got him back to what he does best. I think he tried to do a little bit too much earlier this season, the first and second game, but I think he’s got his tempo back.”
Do too much? How so?
“Trying different things as a punter,” Maalouf said. “He’s an 11th-year pro, so my thing to him is, do what you do that got you to this spot. He was experimenting with a couple different styles this offseason and he was actually doing really well with it, but just not enough in those real-time game reps to really kind of hone it in a little bit more.”
Colquitt, like everyone else, didn’t have a preseason because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“[The experimenting] might be something we save a little bit for next year,” said Maalouf, “if, hopefully there is a preseason next year.”
Colquitt’s woes have floated mostly under the radar because there haven’t been any major meltdowns. But he has put a struggling and beat-up defense in some bad spots.
• A 36-yard punt with a 25-yard net at Indianapolis helped the Colts go ahead 7-3 on a four-play, 35-yard touchdown drive.
• A 43-yard punt with a 27-yard net helped the Colts go ahead 25-3 with a 65-yard touchdown drive.
• A 41-yard punt with a 28-yard net at Houston failed to pin the Texans near their goal line and made it easier for them to drive to the 1-yard line before turning the ball over on downs in the closing minutes.
Colquitt’s past two games have been better with net punts of 50, 33 and 44 against the Titans, and 37, 41, 46 and 28 against the Texans.
“He’s back to his normal self, directional [punting] like he has been,” Maalouf said. “We just went back to what made him successful the last 11 years.”
He still needs consistency and help from a group of special teamers no longer led by linebacker Eric Wilson. Anthony Barr’s injury moved Wilson into the starting defensive lineup and out of the role of do-it-all special teamer — a role that led to two blocked punts a year ago.
“He was one of our core special teams captains,” said Maalouf, whose kick coverage unit also is struggling, at 28th in the league. “Losing a guy like that is hard. But we expect it. That’s kind of what we do. We kind of groom some of these young players.”
One of them is third-year running back Mike Boone, who was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week for a well-timed forced fumble while covering Colquitt’s second punt Sunday.
Boone has played 39 snaps this season, all on special teams. His play Sunday jump-started a team whose offense had just gone three-and-out with a 7-0 lead. The Vikings got the ball back at the Houston 35 and were able to add a field goal.
“Those are such big momentum swings in the game, especially when they happen on special teams,” linebacker Eric Kendricks said. “You got to get hyped for that.”
Considering the state of his defense this season, Zimmer will need more help like that from his special teamers.