The former Walton High School standout, now a senior at Vanderbilt, has become one of the Southeastern Conference’s top punters, and he’s a candidate for the Ray Guy Award as the nation’s elite player at his position.
“It’s nothing I really thought I would ever get,” Kent said. “I didn’t start playing until my sophomore year (at Walton). I didn’t even think I was going to get recruited. I ended up walking on (at Vanderbilt) and thought it would be cool if I got to play.
“Then, I started showing up online and in the news. It just comes down to working hard. You have to keep perspective, and you can’t get caught up in it as a specialist.”
As a result of not playing a great deal of football in high school, combined with playing a position seldom caught in the limelight, Kent was forced into his bid at walking on to a college football team. At Vanderbilt, a university renowned for its academics, it was important for Kent to focus on earning an athletic scholarship to balance out the high cost of tuition — among the nation’s steepest.
“I think having that chance to earn a scholarship also made me appreciate what I had,” Kent said. “A lot of guys, not that they miss out, but they lose perspective. For the people that come on as a walk-on and earn scholarships, it helps us focus that much more and play harder. You don’t want to go back to paying full tuition at Vanderbilt University.”
Last season, the 6-foot-2, 205-pound Kent averaged 42.5 yards per punt, which was good enough sixth in the SEC. Of his 64 punts, 23 were placed inside the 20. He also had 16 punts of 50 or more yards, including a career-best 67-yard punt against Connecticut.
But more important than the length of his punts, Kent is more focused on the team aspect of what he does.
“Some guys, all they care about what they see online or in ESPN,” Kent said. “They just show distance or hang time. That doesn’t matter. You can’t just focus on how far you punt it, which is what a lot of these guys focus on and talk about rather than what actually matters. If it calls for a short punt, you can’t go for the long punt.
“You can’t just focus on your numbers. A lot of people say, ‘Hey, I hit one 50 yards.’ If it’s only in the air for 3.6 seconds, then the other team has a chance to take it to the house. That’s why you have to push accolades to the side and worry about your team.”
Much of working to help out the team has to do with planning ahead of time for opposing punt return teams and taking into account current game settings. For a player like Kent, that includes being knowledgeable of where on the field he is punting from, and what the score is.
“It all comes down to game-planning and what coach wants me to do,” he said. “Just like every other player on the field, he might want me to kick it (over the punt returner’s head) on one play. He might want me to kick it away from (the returner), or out of bounds. It depends on field position, game plan and wind conditions. If you kick it high, it might get caught up in the sun.”
While fans and offensive coordinators alike don’t typically like to see punters on the field, Kent’s ability to do his job can give his team extra confidence and, occasionally, turn the momentum of a game. For most fans, it’s hard to see where a punter can help a team win football games, but Kent explains that his job is just as important as the others on the team.
“When you go out on the field, and (your teammates) trust you, that’s when they’re happy you are on the field,” he said. “If you’re on the field, and your team is saying, ‘Uh oh,’ that’s no good. If the offense knows there isn’t as much pressure because you can help set up the defense better, then it works out better.”