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The Punter That Was Promised Has Arrived

San Diego State’s Matt Araiza is having the greatest punting season in college football history. He’s also redefining how valuable punters can really be.

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Matt Araiza knew the Big Punt was different. Yes, he was already on pace to set the all-time yards-per-punt record, and yes, Araiza had hit an 86-yard punt the week before. But when the ball came off of his foot in the thin Rocky Mountain air of Colorado Springs, the San Diego State punter surprised even himself.

“When I looked up at that ball, it was crazy,” Araiza says. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a ball travel like that before.”

In an interview earlier this month, Araiza told The San Diego Union-Tribune that in practice he sometimes boots the ball 68 yards in the air. The Big Punt traveled more than 80. The announcers were astounded. You’d think the players at Air Force would be used to dealing with airborne projectiles, but the punt returner just watched as the ball flew over his head. Pat McAfee later called the Big Punt a “Piss Missile,” which is just about the highest honor a punter can receive.

Punters don’t try to make highlights. They try to be consistent, perfecting their motion so it’s the same every time. But Araiza has a rocket launcher for a leg, so for him consistency is making highlights. He’s hit 14 punts of at least 60 yards, two shy of the NCAA record for the most in a full season—and the Aztecs still have at least five games to go. He has 28 punts of 50-plus yards; the NCAA record is 32, set in 1994. He’s averaging 54.0 yards per punt, which would smash the NCAA and NFL records—51.0 in college and 51.4 in the NFL, the latter set by Slingin’ Sammy Baugh in 1940. Even if we factor in returns and touchbacks, Araiza is on pace for history: SDSU’s net punting average is 46.7 yards per punt; since the NCAA started including touchbacks in net punting average, no team has been better than 45.0.

And remember, the Big Punt wasn’t even Araiza’s longest punt of the year. He also boomed an 86-yarder against San Jose State at sea level.

There has been one 80-plus-yard punt in the NFL in 2021, by Green Bay’s Corey Bojorquez. Before that, the last one came in 2013. Araiza has as many 80-plus-yard punts in the past two weeks as every punter in the NFL has in the past 10 seasons combined.

When we spoke on Tuesday night, Araiza called kicking a football really hard “the greatest feeling.” In addition to punting, he handles placekicking and kickoff duties for San Diego State. But it’s no secret that he enjoys punting the most. “Some games you get a bunch of short field goals,” he says. “With the new changes to the touchback rules, pretty much every kickoff is a touchback. It isn’t much of a challenge anymore. Punting you go out there and you swing as hard as you want.”

I have started watching San Diego State games specifically to see Araiza punt. Want to hang out Saturday night? Sorry, I can’t—Punt God is playing Fresno State on CBS Sports Network at 10:30 p.m. ET. Maybe he’ll hit one 90 yards this week!

I’m watching for different reasons than San Diego State fans. They’re rooting for wins; I’m happiest when the offense goes three-and-out at its own 8-yard line so Araiza has maximum space to punt. Somehow, we’re both getting what we want. The Aztecs are 7-0 and ranked 21st in the AP poll, with two wins over Pac-12 opponents. Normally punters aren’t stars of undefeated teams, but Araiza is an exception. SDSU ranks 117th out of 130 teams in offensive SP+, but it’s winning anyway because it dominates field position and keeps opponents off the scoreboard. The defense is legitimately good, ranking third in the FBS in yards allowed per play. And opponents often have to go 90 yards against that incredible defense, because of Araiza’s amazing punts.

Aztecs head coach Brady Hoke recently said that Araiza is the team’s MVP. He was being 100 percent serious, and he’s 100 percent correct.

Araiza is the closest thing in football history to a must-watch punter. As his team keeps winning games and his punts keep soaring over the heads of baffled punt returners, he also raises a question: Just how valuable can a punter truly be?

I remember seeing a hypothetical at some point in the past few years: If you were an NFL general manager, would you use a first-round draft pick on a magical punter who could pin every single punt within the opposing 5-yard line? This seems like a cute question—the football equivalent of asking someone whether they’d eat the world’s grossest food for a million dollars. But the answer is simple: yes. Of course you would use a first-round pick on the Punter That Was Promised. Since 2001, NFL teams starting drives from inside their own 5-yard line have scored just 16.8 percent of the time. This punter would make the average opponent worse than the 2021 Jets, who score on 22.1 percent of their drives. The Punter That Was Promised would be the most valuable player in football by a wide margin. He’d be worthy of going first.

Is Araiza the Punter That Was Promised? His older brother has long thought so. When Araiza was younger, his brother took him out to a local field with some footballs and let him kick away. “After three balls, he told my dad that I was going to play in the NFL,” Araiza says. But Matt didn’t have dreams of special teams stardom. “I thought I was going to play soccer overseas in Europe,” he says, “so that was the goal for a while.”

Most kickers and punters specialize in their chosen paths from an early age. They attend expensive camps and begin perfecting their form. But Araiza took a while to realize that kicking was his path. He ran track as an underclassman at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego, and recently told the Union-Tribune that the hurdles helped his footwork on punting. He was the striker for his high school soccer team, banging home game-winning goals in playoff games. Kicking? Well, that was just a way onto the football roster. “When I originally went out for the football team, it wasn’t to be a kicker. It was just to play football, to branch out as an athlete.”

Araiza also played cornerback for a while. That shows up when he has to make a tackle.

But as soon as Araiza started kicking, it became clear that he had a gift for it. In 2015, he broke the San Diego sectional record for field goals in a single season, Rancho Bernardo won a state championship, and he was named to the MaxPreps sophomore All-American team. He was the San Diego sectional kicker of the year in all three years he kicked, and broke the county record for career field goals. But colleges don’t scout kickers based on who makes the most high school field goals; they scout guys who come recommended by kicking coaches, who often assess only players who paid to go to their camps. At the end of Araiza’s senior season at Rancho Bernardo, he hadn’t gotten any scholarship offers, and was still considering soccer as a pathway to his future. The only two FBS teams that gave him offers were San Diego State and UMass.

Araiza found a home at SDSU, not far from where he grew up. But he still wasn’t punting. During his freshman and sophomore years he was put in charge of placekicking and kickoffs; very few schools let one player kick, punt, and handle kickoffs. They’re three different skills that each require practice, and a human leg can swing only so many times before it gets overworked. Araiza set a school record for made field goals in a season and ranked sixth in the nation in touchback percentage in 2019.

And starting this fall, San Diego State also tasked Araiza with doing the thing that he was put on this earth to do: punt the football. You can almost hear return men yelling “Oh crap!” as the balls sail over their heads. I wonder whether at some point they will simply stand farther back.

Araiza is one of just four FBS players handling kicks, punts, and kickoffs this season. Somehow, he’s close to the best in the nation at all three. In addition to his record-setting punting, he’s drilled three 50-yard field goals, second most in college football, and has the fourth-longest average kickoff distance (65.0 yards). San Diego State ranks seventh in overall special teams FEI, which takes into account all aspects of special teams.

Araiza should win the Ray Guy Award, which goes to the nation’s best punter. This is a statement of fact rather than a prediction. If Araiza doesn’t win this award, I will forever consider it illegitimate, and potentially commit arson at the Ray Guy Award headquarters.

But if the Aztecs go undefeated, and Araiza remains their most valuable player, shouldn’t he get something more? Should he be the Mountain West Player of the Year? A kicker or punter has never finished in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting, but that’s just because they fashioned the statue after a guy running instead of a guy punting. Show me in the rule book where it says a punter can’t win the Heisman!

Then there’s his NFL potential: Just how high will Araiza be drafted? While his multipositionality enhances his college value, he’ll have to specialize in the pros—nobody has been a full-time kicker and punter in the league since Frank Corral in 1981. Araiza projects as a punter, because that’s where he’s setting records, and because he’s a lefty. While that makes him significantly less employable as an NFL kicker—if a righty kicker gets hurt, teams would never reach out to a lefty for tryouts, since it’s complicated to have a holder relearn how to get the snap down in reverse—it makes him significantly more employable as a punter, as it’s believed that lefty punters put reverse spin on the ball that makes it tougher to catch. Patriots coach Bill Belichick famously fetishizes lefty punters—he probably has a hard drive full of Araiza clips lying around his office.

There have been first-round punters in the past, most recently in 1979. But since 2000, nobody has gone higher than Bryan Anger, who was picked 70th by the Jaguars in 2012. Anger averaged 44.2 yards per punt as a senior at Cal; Araiza is outpacing that mark by almost 10 yards per punt. His selection will depend more on his hangtime and ability to prevent big returns than his record-setting stats—in the NFL, returners are faster and better, and might be able to get under the balls that are flying over college players’ heads. But at the very least, Araiza has ensured that pro scouts will look at him, which didn’t happen for him coming out of high school.

At some positions, NFL teams can struggle to identify the best players. Quarterbacks can put up gaudy stats because of their offensive scheme; wide receivers who dominate in college can look lost in the pros. But with Araiza, it’s easy. Foot meets ball; fireworks ensue. His big brother saw it on a random field in San Diego, and he set records as soon as he started to kick in high school and college. Now that he’s finally showing off his best skill, he’s immediately emerged as a punting legend.

Watching Araiza help the Aztecs win game after game feels like unlocking a portal to a world where the sport’s millions of complicated schemes and strategies don’t matter. All that matters is watching him boom footballs as far as he can. The Punter That Was Promised has arrived—we’ll be seeing his highlights for years to come.