By Brad Locke | NEMS Daily Journal
The first time Baker Swedenburg lined up in Mississippi State’s spread punt formation, he thought, “I don’t want anything to do with this.”
When punting, the Bulldogs line up in rather spacious intervals, with two players in the backfield to serve as extra protection for Swedenburg. That means the other team often appears to come close to blocking the kick, and that was the case in last weekend’s 14-12 loss to South Carolina.
Swedenburg, a third-year sophomore, has no more trepidation when taking the snap.
“I trust Ben Beckwith and Devin Jones, and when there’s a guy running straight at me on the outside, it’s a trust thing,” he said. “It’s really just trusting my shield, and I have a great foundation with those guys.”
Swedenburg also trusts long snapper Reed Gordon, having worked with him the past couple of years as the backup punt battery. Both are first-year starters and doing quite well.
Swedenburg is averaging 40.5 yards per punt, which ranks ninth in the SEC, but he’s been consistent. His only bad punt was an 11-yard shank against Georgia.
“I still think about that one,” he said.
He’s punted 42 times, and eight of his kicks have traveled 50 or more yards. Teams are averaging just 1.8 yards per return.
Swedenburg is especially adept at placing his punts. Fourteen of his kicks have been downed inside the 20-yard line, which ranks third in the SEC. He practices his accuracy by aiming for a garbage can, and he said a big part of pooch punting is mental.
He can focus so well on what matters because of that trust he has in his blockers.
“It sounds like a little thing,” Swedenburg said, “but it’s a great part of me being successful.”
Smith coming up big
Chris Smith has quietly become a favorite target for MSU quarterbacks, and being a big target helps.
At 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, the junior is the biggest member of the Bulldog receiving rotation. He’s tied for the team lead with 18 catches, totaling 160 yards and a touchdown, and 11 of his catches have come over the past three games.
Against South Carolina, he caught a 19-yard TD pass.
“You can body people and use your body, it really helps you,” offensive coordinator Les Koenning said. “He ran a really good route on the touchdown throw – widened the guy, did exactly what he was taught to do, and bam, he was open.”
Smith also had an 11-yard catch in the fourth quarter, in which he leaped for the ball, was hit and flipped over, and landed hard on the Scott Field turf. He popped right up.
With MSU trying find more consistency throughout its receiving corps, Smith’s development into a reliable possession receiver is a big deal.
“He’s getting continually better as a route runner, which he has to be, because he’s not a speed receiver with elite speed,” coach Dan Mullen said. “When he works he has the opportunity to be one of our top receivers. He’s got size and he’s got strength and he’s got good body control and good ball skills.”
Banks trying to break one
Junior cornerback Johnthan Banks has taken over lead punt return duties this year, and returning kicks was something he excelled at when playing for East Webster High School.
So far this season, he’s averaging just 5.2 yards per return with a long of 22. Banks admits to being a work in progress.
“That was one of my specialties in high school, but it hasn’t worked out real well right here,” he said. “We’re on a big level, my first year doing it, I’m going out there making sure I catch the ball first. When I get a chance, I’m going to try to break it.”