While many football fans overlook the importance of special teams, junior punter Kai Kroeger considers it an underappreciated aspect of the sport that helps teams stifle their opponents and shift momentum.
“When we’re able to set up — whether it’s pinning them back or we're able to convert on a fourth down fake, get our offense on the field and we end up scoring a touchdown — it’s a big play for us,” Kroeger said. “(It’s a) big momentum swing for sure, definitely takes the air out of the opponent.”
Throughout the 2022 campaign, Kroeger has demonstrated how vital special teams can be to a team’s success by excelling in numerous facets of play and leading South Carolina’s special teams unit that is among the best in the country.
Kroeger has had one of the best seasons by a South Carolina punter in recent memory. He averaged 46.8 yards per punt on 52 punts in the regular season, which is the second-highest single-season average punt distance in school history and the third-highest in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) this season.
Not only have Kroeger’s punts traveled long distances, but they have been accurate, preventing touchbacks and forcing opponents to start drives deep in their own territory. Twenty-seven of his punts this season have been downed behind the opponent’s 20-yard line for a 51.9% clip on the season.
Kroeger said mentally preparing himself to be in specific situations before kickoff helps him execute punts during games.
“Whether it’s right before I go to bed, just imagining the next day or the punts I’m going to have or, or pregame just imagining that ‘I’m going to be in this situation’ … so I know what to do in the game,” Kroeger said. “(I want to do) anything I can do to prepare myself, so when I’m in that situation, it’s not like I’ve never been there before.”
Punters are traditionally known to serve as placeholders when kickers attempt field goals, and Kroeger has taken that responsibility as well. He said he has practiced holding since he was a freshman in high school and described his technique for the optimal hold.
“As soon as I see the snapper bring his hands back, I can see where the ball’s coming," Kroeger said. "I try to have my left hand behind, right hand in front and catch it so I can have my left hand on top.”
Kroeger has also become increasingly involved in the passing game. The team will often use him in fourth-down situations to fake a punt and make a pass for a first down. He is a perfect 5-5 on passing attempts in his three years as a Gamecock, totaling 150 yards and two touchdowns. This season, he has completed three passes for 84 yards and one touchdown.
Kroeger said practicing his passing skills has become part of his practice routine and estimates that he takes 30 to 40 throws per day.
“When I do my punting warm up and stretch, then me and (redshirt sophomore long snapper Hunter Rogers) will get together and throw,” Kroeger said. “We start close and end up just backing up and just letting them rip for probably about ten minutes or so.”
Kroeger said he enjoys participating in the passing game because it allows him to contribute to the team’s success in an unconventional way.
“I love it. It keeps it interesting,” Kroeger said. “It keeps me back in my high school days being able to do more than just kick a ball, and it definitely helps the team out, as we've been able to see, whether it’s getting a first downfield position (or) helping the offense.”
Kroeger’s efforts as a punter, placeholder and passer have helped the Gamecocks' special teams unit become the FBS leader in special teams efficiency, according to ESPN. Kroeger said his teammates’ belief in the role special teams plays in the team’s success has motivated the unit to perform better each week.
“I think everyone now is excited about special teams, more than what they already were,” Kroeger said. “Seeing the success we had and how really special teams was a game-changer … just gave everyone that belief that that part of the game can be the deciding factor.”
Kroeger gave credit to special teams coordinator Pete Lembo, who was hired ahead of the 2021 season, for creating an environment that prioritizes flexibility and provides opportunities for younger players.
“He keeps it fun, energized, always changing it up, using the different ‘World War II terms’ or whatever he comes up with,” Kroeger said. “Moving forward, I guess guys are buying into his new system more so. The new guys, even — we see a lot of those young guys stepping up — and everyone’s just trusting Coach Lembo and knows that he definitely knows what he’s talking about.”
Lembo said the Kroeger and other players buying into his style of coaching has created an aura of energy and excitement around the Gamecock special teams unit.
“Kai and the rest of the guys — they’re on board with what we’re doing, and they're excited about what we're doing and I think we’re at a point where they look forward to what are we going to have for them this week,” Lembo said. “It’s nice to have guys like Kai and (junior defensive lineman Tonka Hemingway) that you can have great confidence that if you put them in the right position, that they’re going to be ballplayers and make plays.”
Over the course of the season, Kroeger has been named to the “Ray’s 8” shortlist for National Punter of the Week honors six times, winning the award once. On Nov. 21, he was nominated as a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, which is awarded to the nation’s best punter at the end of each season.
Kroeger said he hopes to one day deliver contributions on and off the field similar to Guy, a punting pioneer who passed away at the age of 72 on Nov. 3.
“He’s the game-changer punter. He’s what’s started this whole ‘punters are people too’ thing — obviously the only punter in the Hall of Fame — so hearing that was definitely heartbreaking, I think, for every specialist, and everybody just in general,” Kroeger said. “So now … it’s trying to do your best to try to do or try to have the same impact he had on the community.”
Head coach Shane Beamer said Kroeger’s efforts this season are more than deserving of recognition by awards committees.
“It would be a travesty if he wasn’t one of the top guys in line for the Guy Award. He’s phenomenal,” Beamer said. “He’s just a really, really good football player and a great leader for this football team, so any accolades that come his way are well-deserved.”
While the Ray Guy Award is within reach for Kroeger, he joked that he could be capable of earning college football’s most prestigious honor: the Heisman Trophy.
“I probably could start a Heisman campaign," Kroeger said. "I think I’m going to need the help from the fans and all you guys to help me get there.”