Under Pressure

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Updated: September 22, 2015

“It’s just you and the ball.”

Junior punter Chris Fraser likes the pressure. Knowing there’s no one behind him. Knowing it’s fourth down. Knowing it’s just him and the ball. Knowing that if he’s in the game, the team is probably depending on him to perform. If something goes awry, he’ll be in the middle of it. He visualizes the punt. He goes through the same thought process. See it, feel it, trust it. He gets his grip right, drops it, and kicks it.

“Honestly, I like the pressure. I really do,” said Chris Fraser. As he explained his position, a few things become apparent. First, punting tests your mental mettle more than you might think. Second, he puts a lot of time and thought into punting. And third, he does, indeed, like the pressure.

Fraser describes what being a punter entails by saying, “Punting is very mental. There’s usually a lot of pressure on you. Everyone is looking at you. There’s no one to blame but yourself if you mess up.”

It’s clear how mentally challenging punting and kicking is because you have to have confidence in your abilities. You have to trust your motion. Everyone is bound to have a bad punt eventually, but you have to respond. If you don’t, if you’re not mentally tough enough, then you’ll also shank the following punt. It’s clear Chris Fraser loves the pressure. “Success is just having confidence in your abilities,” he stated.

However, for a team that went 1-9 last season, high-pressure moments can be lacking.

Every football program has its ups and downs. For the Big Red, last season was undoubtedly a low point — a one win season with the lone victory coming against the win-less Columbia. A 1-9 season can hang over a team like a dark cloud, especially if another poor start follows. Yet, every year is different, so a new one offers a fresh start. Fraser explains that, “It was very difficult going through it. But it made us a lot stronger.” He added, “Going forward gave us a lot of fuel and beat the crap out of other teams.”

It’s one thing to express the right ideas, but it’s another thing to actually follow through with them. “We have to prove everything,” Fraser explained.

The Big Red are doing everything they can to work harder, yet the goal remains the same: to win the Ivy League title. The offseason was aimed at taking every step possible to put the team in the right position in order to achieve this objective. “The guys were really getting after it,” whether it was on the field or at the gym, it was a “great spring” followed by a “high octane camp,” Fraser remarked.

Cornell views Fraser as a vital component to help turn around the football team. This situation is a perfect match for him, because he not only enjoys pressure moments, but it’s clear that he has an affinity for them. As an example of Fraser’s demeanor and his spectacular skill, he once booted the football high in the air and deep down the field from deep in the Cornell zone. This outstanding punt was good for a whopping 72 yards, which was the longest of his collegiate career, and the longest in the conference last season. “We were backed up, and I kinda just hit it right,” Fraser described of his career-best punt.

The ability to kick a football that far is honed as much as it’s gifted. The so-called leg strength of a punter requires not just power, but a good motion and swing path, along with good flexibility. The more flexible a punter is, the longer he can keep his foot on the ball, leading to more explosion and longer, higher punts. As such, every punter has to worry about improving their strength and flexibility, in addition to the nuances of the position.

“All kickers and punters have different form. No two guys are the same,” Fraser explained of the position. He has worked with pro punters before, and Cornell has access to the Kansas City Chiefs’ film. Although you can study a motion, and all punters are keying on the same basics, it’s best to follow your own path, since every kicker and punter is unique.

Punting is such a contextual position that it can be hard to evaluate these players based on just statistics, although Fraser’s stats are indeed impressive. He’s the first Cornellian to earn All-Ivy accolades in back-to-back years since Kevin Boothe in 2005. Fraser, as a sophomore, led the Ivy League in punting average and was 19th in the nation.

However, even though a punter can kick a line drive far, it won’t allow his fellow special team players to cover the kick and prevent a return. Therefore, a high punt with plenty of hang time that doesn’t get returned is valuable. A punt that pins a team inside its own ten yard line is very important, even if it’s not a 72-yard bomb. Fraser says he just concentrates on creating a soaring flight and aiming for about 45-50 yards down field. If he’s called upon in a shorter field, he’s tasked with pinning the opposition deep on their own side of the field. In these situations, he’ll alter his drop and angle the ball differently, getting end-over-end rotation of the ball. In addition, he always aims for the sideline at about the seven yard mark.

Fraser, like other punters, wants to dispel a notion that his position is for second-class athletes. Chris Fraser is listed at six-foot-two and 211 pounds; he’s a big, athletic guy. Fraser also wanted to play receiver or safety at Cornell, and he would have been one of the biggest players on the team, but his coaches would not hear it. His leg is too valuable, so the coaching staff wouldn’t let him participate in any drills, although Fraser and the other specialists train and lift with everybody else.

Fraser’s situation is reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of the greatest punter ever, Ray Guy, who was a two-sport athlete at the University of Southern Mississippi. Guy threw a no-hitter for the baseball team and, later that day, practiced with the rest of his teammates on the gridiron. He was said to be the best athlete on either team, and Guy finally got his due when he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014. “I think everyone has this idea that kickers and punters aren’t athletes. [Ray Guy] is just a testament to that,” Fraser said. Sometimes it’s lost that punters are athletes that specialize, often for pragmatic reasons, just like with any other position.

Fraser hails from Potomac, Maryland and attended Saint Albans School, which recently built a $20 million dollar football facility and has produced NFL Hall of Fame lineman Jonathan Ogden, who still holds records in track and field.  Fraser, a communications major with a business minor, considered Cornell because he wanted strong academics, along with the chance to play Division I football. Ultimately, he says he chose Cornell because of his affinity for the coaching staff. “He’s awesome; I love Coach Archer,” Fraser said of his high energy head coach. “He really values what guys have to say, I love playing for him.” Fraser added, “[Coach Archer] will be the first one to run up to you when you make a play.”

In high school, Fraser played lacrosse, basketball, track, and football, as his school had a minimum sports requirement. He thought he would play soccer because Fraser had played the sport since he was four years old. In a sign of things to come, one coach installed him at goalie because he could punt the ball the farthest among his teammates. But the varsity football coach made an ultimatum: he could only make varsity if he dropped soccer.

Fraser said, “I knew my heart was in football.” There was never really a question. “Football’s been my true love.” In high school, Fraser played receiver and safety, as well as punter. He focused on punting after his freshman year, where his soccer experience helped tremendously.

Fraser has his sights on a pro career in football. Cornell has not produced many NFL players, although one — J.C. Tretter — is on an active roster right now. It’s a tough road for punters, as their NFL counterparts can play into their late thirties with ease. And sometimes, even the best punters will go undrafted. Ray Guy went in the first round, but that was a different NFL, one where rookies didn’t make millions in their first year.

Fraser has a plan, however. He wants to graduate early, and spend what would be the second semester of his senior year honing his craft. He wishes to move to California and work out with established college and pro players. Two months strictly dedicated to punting. Constantly getting better, like a professional player would, but it’s still not an easy task. “A lot of it is situational — what a team needs,” Fraser said. “I’m not going to worry about it. I’ll just worry about the stuff I can control.”

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