While most eyes have been on the competition at kicker between veteran Olindo Mare and Justin Medlock, there’s another battle on the Carolina Panthers’ special teams that’s just as competitive.
Twelve-year veteran Nick Harris and rookie Brad Nortman can be found on the kicking specialists’ field during practices. The two punters are not only vying for the No. 1 position, but potentially the only punting spot on the final roster.
“You’re really seeing a good mix,” head coach Ron Rivera said. “You have a young guy that’s got a good leg, good hang time and kicks the ball really well. And you have a veteran guy that places it where you needed it to be placed. We’re going to continue going through this and evaluate this.”
Seldom does a team use a draft pick on a punter, but the Panthers did just that on Nortman in April. He was one of only two punters taken in the draft.
The rookie from Wisconsin seemed to be Jason Baker’s replacement, but the sixth-round selection still has to earn his spot against the veteran Harris.
“When you’re in the competition and go head to head with the guy, it’s a lot more difficult than people would think,” Nortman said. “I think they’re going to want to put the guy who helps them win the most out there. … When you’re here, it doesn’t matter how you got here as much as what you’re going to do when you’re here.”
Harris ranks third on the active punters list with 876 punts, 37,213 yards and 239 career punts inside the 20-yard line.
He began his career in Cincinnati in 2001 and has since kicked for Detroit and Jacksonville. Harris was signed by the Jaguars five games into the season and averaged 42.7 yards per punt while putting 13 of his 72 punts inside the 20-yard line.
“I feel like I’ve still got it. I feel as good as ever, like I know what I’m doing,” Harris said. “Sharing reps and stuff, we haven’t punted a ton, which is great because it means our offense is coming together.”
Each player has punted five times this preseason, and the results are indicative of their strengths. Nortman has the distance advantage, with an average of 49 yards per punt to Harris’ 42.4. But the veteran has shown his accuracy by putting two balls inside the 20 and zero in the end zone compared to the rookie’s two touchbacks and zero inside the 20.
Rivera also said the punt coverage would play a role in who gets the starting nod. Several times last season, Baker outkicked the coverage with low, long punts that resulted in opponents averaging 13.3 yards per return, including three touchdowns.
The 22-year-old Nortman averaged 42.1 yards per punt at Wisconsin, and in his junior season he booted one 76 yards. As he’s transitioned from college, Nortman said Harris has been there to show him how to approach the game more professionally.
“It’s great to be pushed by a guy who’s had a lot of success in the league,” Nortman said. “I’ve been able to learn a lot from him based on how he’s been able to have that much success in the league for so long.
“He approaches it as a professional and takes it seriously. To see the consistency and see what kind of punter he is, I can see why he’s been in the league for so long.”
Nortman hopes it’s his turn now, and he knows there are two preseason games left to prove why he’s in the rare company of punters chosen in the draft.
“It was a great blessing to be drafted, but it still needs to be earned,” he said. “Nothing’s given to you in this league, so I have to go out there and earn it every day.”
Staff writer Joseph Person contributed.