Sept. 14, 2009
This story was originally featured in the Cal Football Kickoff Game Day Magazine, Sept. 12, 2009
It took 15 minutes to change Bryan Anger's life.
Today, he's among the best college punters, having been one of 10 semifinalists for the Ray Guy Award last season as a redshirt freshman. But until the fall of 2005, Anger thought baseball was his ticket to a college scholarship.
Then, in October of his junior year at Camarillo High School, he attended a kicking camp run by former UCLA All-America kicker/punter Chris Sailer. Anger was lukewarm on the idea; he considered himself more of a wide receiver than a kicker.
But his parents thought it was a good idea, so Bryan went to Sailer's camp, where he spent most of the first day place-kicking. The last 15 minutes were spent punting.
"He (place-) kicked the first hour and, to be honest, wasn't very good at it," Sailer said. "Then he hit one punt and it was obvious he had tremendous talent."
"Right then, Chris told me, `Your future is in punting,'" Anger said.
After working with Sailer and former Cal kicker Ignacio Brache through the fall, Anger won the prestigious punting competition at the National Kicking Event in Las Vegas in January 2006.
"That's when everything exploded," Anger said. "It caught me off guard. Everything just came so fast."
Just three months after those pivotal 15 minutes, waves of Division I schools were offering scholarships.
"It was like we walked into a room and the lights went on," his father, Mike Anger, said.
Serendipity landed him at Cal.
Anger was scheduled for a Friday visit to Stanford that spring. Despite Cal's apparent lack of interest, Anger's mother called the Bears' coaches to see if Bryan could visit Berkeley, too, while they were in the area. Cal agreed.
Anger did not feel comfortable at Stanford, but loved Cal. While on his visit, the Angers dropped off recent tape of Bryan's punting, which piqued the Bears' interest. It was Cal's high-level football and academics that attracted Anger, who said he had a 4.08 grade-point average in high school.
Math and science are Anger's academic interests. He is majoring in Integrative Biology and may eventually go into marine biology, which would take him back to the ocean, his beloved childhood playground for surfing, boogie boarding and fishing. His scientific mindset is apparent when he discusses the complicated mechanics of punting, which, to most of us, seem as simple as one, two, three, kick.
The first step needs to be just so, then the left arm must go up at a certain moment, and the ball needs to be dropped right at hip level, and Anger goes on and on.
"But, the main focus is the drop," said Anger. "If the ball is tilted at a bad angle, you're never going to hit it right. Ninety percent of it is the drop."
That's why Anger drops the ball to the ground hundreds of times during practice and countless times on the sidelines during a game. Every little movement and every single body position need to be perfect every time.
"Talking to a punter is like talking to a golfer," Cal special teams coach Pete Alamar said. "Bryan is a perfectionist."
The process of a two-second punt is so intricate that Anger did not dare make a major in-season adjustment to fix some bad habits he developed last season when he partially tore a medial collateral ligament in his knee in the opener against Michigan State. He wore a brace for the next four games, causing him to swing his leg across the ball instead of through it because he could not extend his leg.
After the brace came off, he produced the three longest Pac-10 punts of the season -- a 72-yarder against Arizona State and boots of 75 and 76 yards against Stanford.
Distance is not the issue with Anger, though. Hang time and direction are. Anger led the Pac-10 in punts downed inside the 20-yard line last year with 26. He worked during the summer with former Cal punter Nick Harris, now with the Lions, who was a master of having the ball stop dead inside the 5.
Anger's 43.1-yard average in 2008 was the fifth best in school history, but he seldom references that statistic. He is more interested in how quickly he gets the ball airborne and how long it stays in the air, qualities measured by a stopwatch.
"Get-off time between 1.9 and 2.05 seconds is pretty good, and hang time of 5.0 seconds is real good," Anger said.
Five-second hang time is a benchmark for punters, like a .300 batting average for a hitter. Anger has had his share of five-second punts, which usually also translates into distance.
"Hang time is proportional to distance," Anger said. "Yeah, there's some physics there -- trajectory and parabolas."
It's like a math equation, with every step needing to be precise and efficient.
"When he was younger," his mother, Jean, said. "If he was told to write a paragraph with at least 10 words in each sentence and at least five sentences, his paragraph would have exactly 50 words."
Essays were not Anger's favorite chore, so he saw no reason to extend the effort. Besides, there is a point at which excesses become counterproductive. Anger recalls doing so much kicking on the sidelines during one game that his calf began cramping, so he has to rein in his eagerness.
With efficiency as the goal, Anger made what he considers two major changes in his technique this offseason. One was with his feet. Previously, he started with the front of his left foot about four inches ahead of his right foot. Now his right foot is about four inches ahead of his left, an adjustment of just eight inches that has enabled him to eliminate an unnecessary and time-consuming jab step. The second change is the way he holds the ball. Instead of cradling the ball from underneath, Anger now turns his right hand about two inches, putting his hand more on the side. The move takes his uncontrollable thumb out of the equation.
"The thumb would hit the ball sometimes and the nose (of the ball) would pop up, and it gets messy after that," Anger said.
Efficiency won't mean much without some raw power. Anger is athletic enough to have played three sports in high school (plus soccer for 11 years prior to that) and has worked with weights to build strength on his right leg, which is attached to his long, lean 6-4 body.
"He's got a prototypical punter's body," Alamar said.
Only a sophomore and one of nine punters on the preseason Ray Guy watch list this year, Anger knows an NFL career is possible.
"He has NFL written all over him," Sailer said.
Harris is already there and another former Cal punter, David Lonie, was on the Packers roster this summer before a foot injury ended his chances.
Not many punters get drafted, but Harris did and so did nine other punters in the past four NFL Drafts. And punters can hang around awhile. Current New York Giants punter Jeff Feagles is 43 and will earn about $1.8 million in 2009. Harris is in his ninth NFL season, making about $1.3 million this year.
"Punters can last about 10 years," Anger said.
That evokes a smile that causes the crescent-shaped scar around Anger's right eye to bulge. It resulted not from a football injury, but from a dog bite when Anger was in fifth grade, requiring 26 stitches. He had to wear a hat for months afterward to keep the sun off his wound, and Anger hates hats. But he did it. He knew the science.
Jake Curtis was a sportswriter at the San Francisco Chronicle for 27 years and now writes about Bay Area college football and basketball on his website, jakestakeonsports.com.