A good chunk of CFL fans often tend to play down the importance of punting, and by extension, the role of a punter. That would be to underestimate the significance of the position, at least according to one of the league’s best exponents of that facet of the game, Richie Leone of the Ottawa Redblacks.
He said people who know football would agree that the punter has a very important role to play on special teams.
“If you look at the average NFL punter, he probably has 50 to 60 punts in a season, whereas in the 2019 season, I had 119,” said Leone.
“So, when you’re out there a lot more on a bigger field, flipping the field and all that, it’s really important.”
As for the toughest situation in which a punter can find himself, Leone said hands down it is when he’s backed up in his own endzone and the coach needs him to boot the team out of trouble and pin the opposition in their half.
“I would say that when you get thrown out there in the back of the endzone and you’re looking up at the uprights and you’ve got a whole lot of field to cover, I would say that’s when the most pressure is,” said Leone.
The punter, who turns 29 on March 10, is preparing for his fifth season in the CFL and his third with the Redblacks after being a free agent signing in 2018. Leone is coming off a 2019 season where he was named to the CFL All-Star team, the Redblacks’ only player to make the team.
Prior to joining Ottawa, he played for the BC Lions for two seasons (2015-2016) before signing with the Arizona Cardinals in the NFL in 2017.
When he played for the Lions, Leone filled the duties of the three kicking positions including kickoff, holder, and punter, something he said is very difficult at the professional level, which is why it is extremely rare to see one kicker doing all three in today’s game.
Arguably, one of the most unique aspects of the Canadian game is the rouge, and like the waggle and the no fair catch rule in the CFL, it has both its supporters and detractors.
“It’s a love-hate thing for a lot of guys,” continued Leone. “It can pad your stats a little bit, especially if you get one that rolls all the way to the back of the endzone, but you really don’t go for those.”
“During my career, I’ve led the league in rouges, which isn’t always a great thing,” he said. “I’ve gotten better at managing that grey area, as I call it when you’re trying to pin guys but you’re not far enough to where you really want to let one rip.”
“So, it’s an experience thing in learning how to hit that low, spiral, out-of-bounds kick. It’s definitely been a learning curve,” said Leone. “It took me about a year to figure it out and I’m still obviously learning as professionals do with the experience that you gain.”
“Sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes it’s a bad thing, but it’s vital, so you always want to aim for the corner.”
Leone went on to say that there are some instances in which a punter can prove his worth to his team even more, such as in a potential game-winning situation.
For instance, late in a tied game, a missed field goal would give the opposition an opportunity to march down the field and score themselves to win the game, whereas a punt through the endzone would give his team a one-point cushion as the clock winds down.
Assuming that there is a CFL season this year, Leone, who makes his home in Atlanta, has some personal goals for 2021.
“Specifically, for me as a punter, coach (Bob) Dyce has assembled a really good unit within the cover guys, so we have a great scheme,” he added. “For me personally, I always like to have a good average and a great net.”
“Throughout the years I’ve been able to show that I could do that,” said Leone. “Now this year, I’m going to add a couple of tricks. I’m not going to go too much into detail, but I think there are some new techniques out there that enable you to gain some great yards and net.”
“That’ll be something I’ll be focusing on and I’m crossing my fingers that we have a season.”