Ron Cook: Hits keep coming for Sepulveda
Thursday, August 26, 2010
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As of 8 p.m. Wednesday, there had been 878,045 hits on the YouTube video of Baylor punter Daniel Sepulveda knocking North Texas return man Johnny Quinn into next week during a game in 2004.
I'm guessing Steelers safety Troy Polamalu accounted for No. 878,045.
"I'll have to go home and check it out," Polamalu said after practice earlier Wednesday. "Is it really that good?"
It's awesome, actually.
Check it out. I swear Sepulveda -- now the Steelers' punter -- will remind you of Polamalu. He raced down the field and -- like a blur -- launched his body into Quinn, knocking him backward.
"That was fun," Sepulveda said, grinning.
That's also why no one with the Steelers was surprised when Sepulveda made one of the signature plays in their 24-17 exhibition win against the New York Giants Saturday night. All that stood between Giants punt returner Aaron Ross and the end zone was Sepulveda. Worse, Ross had a lead blocker -- cornerback Courtney Brown -- looking to hurt someone.
"I'm on the field thinking, 'This really isn't good,' " Sepulveda said.
But darned if Sepulveda didn't fight off Brown to hurl Ross out of bounds. Forget for a moment that it came after a 45-yard return, which means the Steelers still haven't solved all of their special teams issues from last season. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin thought enough of Sepulveda's touchdown-saving effort that he picked it as one of the 15 or 20 key plays he showed to the entire team Monday.
"I could sense the respect level of all the guys going up," Sepulveda said.
Most players don't consider a punter or a kicker to be one of them. They disdainfully refer to one as "just a punter" or "just a kicker."
"He's an athlete," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said.
There's plenty of tape to prove it, not just on YouTube but at the team's South Side headquarters. Twice last season, Sepulveda tackled Cleveland Browns return terror Joshua Cribbs to save touchdowns. As a rookie in '07, he also saved a touchdown by hauling down Seattle Seahawks returner Nate Burleson.
"Plays like that can be the difference between making the playoffs and missing the playoffs," Polamalu said.
"[Sepulveda] relishes those opportunities, probably a little too much for my liking," Tomlin said.
Certainly, Sepulveda gives the Steelers something that most teams don't have. Remember the heat that kicker Jeff Reed took last season when he failed to tackle the Cincinnati Bengals' Bernard Scott on a 96-yard kickoff return for a touchdown? There's probably not another kicker in the NFL who would have stopped Scott. But Sepulveda? I'm thinking he would have crunched him.
"It's hard for me to enjoy those plays in the moment because, when they happen, they're negative plays for the team," Sepulveda said. "But I do like the action."
So much that Sepulveda nearly gave up punting at Baylor after his redshirt freshman season. He walked on as a linebacker because his brother, Stephen, was a three-year starter at middle linebacker there. But after being the Bears' special teams MVP as their punter in '03 and earning a scholarship, he asked the coaches if he could play strong safety or outside linebacker.
"I didn't like punting," Sepulveda said. "The football I grew up playing was a physical game and an emotional game. Punting isn't physical. Punting isn't emotional. It's a totally different animal. It's a lot more like golf."
Fortunately for Sepulveda -- not to mention the Steelers -- Baylor specials-teams coach Mark Nelson was a voice of reason.
"He showed me the stats and pointed out how much better the team was with me punting," Sepulveda said. "He told me I was being selfish."
Three college seasons and two Ray Guy Awards as the nation's top punter later, Sepulveda was picked by the Steelers in the fourth round of the '07 NFL draft. He will make $1.1 million this season. Punting is a lot more fun these days.
Now, the Steelers are looking to give Sepulveda more work as their kickoff specialist. They love Reed as their field-goal kicker because he's just about the best in the business, but they weren't thrilled with his short kickoffs last season. Doing it for the first time under stadium lights against the Giants, Sepulveda's kicks went to the New York 5, 13 (after a 5-yard penalty), 11, 1-yard deep in the end zone and 4. "I know I can do better," he said.
"I thought he did a great job and I want to give him another opportunity [against the Denver Broncos Sunday night]," Tomlin said.
You might think this makes for awkward moments between Sepulveda and Reed, but Sepulveda said that isn't so. They are good friends. Sepulveda holds for Reed's field goals and extra points.
"He's been very supportive of me," Sepulveda said. "He's been helping me. It's not like he's keeping any secrets from me. But ... "
You knew there was going to be a "but," right?
"He's a competitor, too," Sepulveda said. "He wants to be the guy."
If nothing else, Sepulveda will push Reed to be better. And if he happens to win the kicking job? The Steelers' coverage team can't help but be better. It will have 11 great athletes instead of 10.
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