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August 14, 2005

The best legs in the land

They're not glamorous. They're not superstars. And they play the only positions on the field where everyone hopes there exists some really nice legs.

They are the punters and the placekickers, and they have pretty tough jobs. No good coach ever wants to use the former, and the latter often must perform under the stress of make-or-break game situations.

The following golden toed players are the best in the nation. They might not be showcasing their speed and size on the gridiron come September, but they will win games for their teams.

Punters

1. Brandon Fields (Michigan State)
The Spartans have some holes to fill in their special teams unit, but they won't have to worry about their punting game. Fields, a junior, is back after a record-breaking year at Michigan State.

Fields now owns the MSU and Big Ten mark for career punting average at 47.1 yards. He led the nation last year with a 47.9 yard average and earned first team All-America honors. Fields also kicked 23 punts for more than 50 yards and had 13 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line. The Spartans will lean on Fields' ability to create field position with his foot.

2. Daniel Sepulveda (Baylor)
Since special teams is arguably the most valuable unit on the Bears' team, Daniel Sepulveda plays a huge role for Baylor. With his penchant for pinning teams deep in their own territory, Sepulveda makes opposing offenses earn their points.

Sepulveda took home the Ray Guy Award for being the college punter of the year last season and could be the first person to ever win the award twice. He was also a consensus All-Big 12 selection after averaging 46 yards per punt. Sepulveda also benefits from a solid coverage team, as Baylor ranked fifth in the nation in net punting (40.6 ypp). He also landed more than 41 percent of his punts inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

3. John Torp (Colorado)
As an understudy of Mark Mariscal, the 2002 Ray Guy Award winner, Torp had a tough act to follow when he stepped into the starting job in 2003. He was on a quick learning curve, though, and finished in the top 25 percent in the nation in punting average during his sophomore season with 42.5 yards per punt.

Torp only got better last season. He was second in the nation with more than 46 yards per punt and was second in the nation in total punting yards. Where Torp really stood out, though, is with his control of the long kick. On his 19 kicks downed inside the 20-yard line last season, Torp boomed out a 49.6 yard average.

4. Tom Malone (Southern Cal)
If the Trojans' offense performs as expected this season, Tom Malone will be the least-used weapon at USC. Last season, he averaged only 3.77 punts per game, the second least for any starting punter.

But Malone made the most of his opportunities by averaging 43.8 yards per punt. That number was down almost 6 yards from his sophomore average of 49 yards per attempt, although that was more because he had to pooch punt so often. He landed an amazing 61 percent of his punts inside his opponents 20-yard line. He comes into his senior season as a 2005 Playboy Preseason All-American.

5. Steve Weatherford (Illinois)
For a team that had to punt more than it wanted to in 2004, Illinois had a strong leg to rely on if fourth down rolled around. Weatherford earned All-Big Ten honors and was a Ray Guy semifinalist.

Weatherford broke the Ilinois school record last season for yards per punt with a 45.4-yard average, which was good for fourth in the nation. He had his best game against Michigan State when he averaged 53.2 yards on five attempts. He also boomed a career-long 79-yard kick against Iowa.

Kickers

1. Mason Crosby (Colorado)
Though Colorado's offense sputtered a bit during the 2004 season, Crosby made the most of his opportunities for the Buffaloes. He led the nation in field goals made from beyond 50 yards with six and was also third in the nation in field goals made with 23.

Crosby showed off his uncanny range against Iowa State when he nailed a 60-yard field goal. He was just the 10th player in NCAA history to make a field goal from 60-plus yards. For 2005, Crosby is a near-unanimous All-American selection in most publications.

2. Travis Bell (Georgia Tech)
Travis Bell wasted little time in making a special teams splash in college football. As a freshman he was a Lou Groza Award semifinalist and second-team All-ACC. He missed the first attempt of his college career from 46 yards out, but then went on to make 15 field goals in a row during the regular season. The previous Yellow Jackets record was 10 consecutive field goals made.

Bell's percentage of .882 was also a Georgia Tech record. He was perfect on his extra point attempts as well, nailing 31 of 31. He was the team's leading scorer with 76 points, and his season-long was from 47 yards.

3. Andrew Wellock (Eastern Michigan)
Wellock, a runner-up for the 2004 Lou Groza Award, was named a 2005 preseason All-American by several publications. He finished the 2004 season as one of the top kickers in the nation, earning third team All-America honors from the Associated Press.

Wellock made 21 of his 23 attempts, good for second in the nation in percentage (.913). He was also third in the nation with field goals made per game at 1.91. Additionally, he has connected on 55 of 56 career extra point attempts.

4. Justin Medlock (UCLA)
In just two seasons, Medlock has already established himself as one of the best kickers in the nation. A semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award last season, he connected on 15 of 20 field goal attempts and ranked second in the Pac-10 in field goal percentage.

Medlock is already seventh on UCLA's career field goal list. He will end up second in school history if he keeps up his current pace. He had one of the best games of his career last season against Oregon when he tied his career long with a 52-yard field goal. He also hit a 50-yarder and four extra points during the game.

5. Connor Hughes (Virginia)
Under coach Al Groh, the Cavaliers always have one of the best special teams units in the nation. Hughes has been a big part of that for the last three seasons. Standing second nationally among returning kickers in field goals made (45) and third in percentage (.818), Hughes is a leading contender for the Lou Groza Award.

Hughes struggled uncharacteristically last season with field goals from more than 40 yards out, hitting only 3 of 8. This season, he will try to return to his sophomore form when he made 23 of 25 field goals, including three from 50-plus yards.


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