Scifres vs. Bennett

Darren Bennett blocked (Getty Images)

Sure the San Diego Chargers mini-camp is still a month away. Questions needing answers still need time for the plot to thicken. Yet there are many battles that figure to kick into high gear the minute mini-camp starts in June coming to a head during preseason. One of the more intriguing story lines, what will happen to Darren Bennett?

Darren Bennett had 87 punts last season averaging 40.7 yards per kick with a net average of 34.3 yards, both career lows. He did manage to nail 31 kicks inside the 20-yard line.

With career lows being the key, competition was brought in. Bennett has performed admirably during his tenure in San Diego. There are some concerns, however. His hang time has been less then stellar and the result is a career low in net average.

If a kick fails the "hang-time" test of 3.5-4.0 seconds or more, a coverage unit does not have ample time to crowd the punt returner. That means open running lanes of a five-yard cushion or more that a skilled returner can evade tacklers and gain positive yardage.

Have trouble figuring this out? Just rewind to the NY Jets game at Qualcomm. Santana Moss had punt returns of 17, 18, 29 and 52 yards with the last one going for a touchdown. Only once was he stopped for no gain. Moss is one of the most feared punt returners in the game, and yet when Bennett did directional punt, it went for 25 yards, ultimately landing out of bounds.

"The competition is here for Darren, but he doesn't care about competition," AJ Smith said of Bennett, who turned 38 in January. "Whoever comes in, they'll go head-to-head and we'll see if a move is made there or not."

Mike Scifres, formerly of Western Illinois, was drafted in the fifth round of the 2003 draft. Scifres was regarded by many as the top punter available in the draft. He has a strong leg, averaging over 48 yards per punt in 2002, and boomed one 75 yards. 23 of his 53 punts went for 50 yards or more, while sixteen were downed inside the 20.

Opponents returned only 41 of his 97 kickoffs (42 percent) last season and just 116 of 209 (56 percent) in his career. Scifres, according to one scout, produced 4.08 seconds of hang time on kickoffs.

"Our focus at the outset is to have him assume the responsibilities of kicking off, which would mean that Steve (Christie) wouldn't need to do that," said Marty Schottenheimer. "Then we'll let the course of events play out from there."

"It's a great opportunity for me to come in and be able to kick off right away," said Scifres. "It's something I can get better at, but it will be a good place for me to come in and contribute as a rookie.

"I just want to get in there and do what I can to help the team win," he said. "My kickoffs are probably what have gotten me the looks that I've gotten, and I take a lot of pride in doing my job to the fullest. Basically all I've heard is that they want me to come in and be the kickoff guy."

Scifres took the easy road to tread down seeing the opening that Coach Schottenheimer left him. The truth is Scifres wants both jobs. He knows he is an excellent punter, and 48 yards per punt is no laughing matter. He is serious in his quest to become the Chargers punter.

A few seasons ago Oakland went into the season with two rookies handling the punting and place kicking duties. The Chargers may find that path hard to navigate, but in the end the roster spot could be crucial.

Oddly enough this debate will rage on for another reason altogether. The place kicking duties could determine the fate of Darren Bennett.

How is this possible?

Quite elementary. If Mackenzie Hoambrecker wins the job, Bennett could be gone. Simple reason is Hoambrecker could then handle kickoffs as well as field goals, and Scifres would just have to handle the punting duties. If Steve Christie wins the job, Bennett figures to stay and handle punts, while Scifres handles kickoffs. One job per person is the rationale.

Nobody wants to see Scifres handle both punting and kickoffs since it will be hard to teach the mechanics of both as a rookie.

Of course the debate on who will win the place kicking competition will carry on just as long as this one will.

So who wins is not the immediate answer, but a question that remains unsolved and the puzzle is bigger than who will punt this year for the Bolts. When we look at the place kicking situation tomorrow we will provide a "you heard it here first" by announcing who will win both spots. You have the why right in this article.

Denis Savage can be reached at safage@cox.net or via the following link: Denis Savage

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