Teacher, student still kickin’ it

Teacher, student still kickin’ it
Chargers punter Mike Scifres continues to find ways to get better at his position. Scifres, who has been with the team for 10 years, received his mentorship under Chargers Hall of Famer Darren Bennett. Photo by Bill Reilly

Chargers Hall of Fame punter Darren Bennett and current punter Mike Scifres continue strong bond 

SAN DIEGO — Along the sidelines during a recent practice at Chargers Park, Darren Bennett was trying to communicate to one of the players some 70-odd yards away.

 

Bennett, the former Chargers punter and team Hall of Famer was making short, repeated strokes along the ground with his foot.

The message’s intended recipient — current Chargers punter Mike Scifres.

“He’s super critical of himself,” said Bennett of his protégé. “Sometimes I just ask him how he’s going and he goes into the whole analytics of his punts.”

In between punts, some angling off to the right, others wobbling through the air, Scifres continued to look in the direction of Bennett, who repeated the short stroke with his foot.

Whatever the message being sent was Scifres received it, letting his mentor know by booming a tight spiraling football high into the sky off his foot, landing only a few yards in front of where Bennett was standing. Bennett signaled his approval, even admiration, with the universally known thumbs up.

“He’s analyzing, knowing that he’s not perfect,” said Bennett. “And he’s trying to get better every day, and I think that’ll drive him to punt for as long as he wants to.”

In their roughly 10 year mentorship advice still flows freely between the two, even though Bennett said what Scifres has done on the field has far surpassed what he ever did.

But what is it that separates Scifres from the other 31 punters in the league?

For Bennett, he said, it’s Scifres’ hang time. “He has the best hang time probably in the history of the game,” he said.

“Mike’s one of the few that can hit a 5 1/2 second hang (time). Mike could hit those 70-yard, 4 second (punts) if he wanted to, but they’re not good team punts a lot of the time. He’s an unselfish team punter.

“He sacrifices his average at times for the best of the team, and I think he doesn’t get recognized enough for that,” Bennett said.

Even so, Scifres, the Chargers’ all-time leader for punting averages, set a new team record last year having averaged 48.3 yards per punt.

Scifres, who grew up playing baseball and soccer in Louisiana, had no idea he would become a punter, let alone one in the NFL.

During his college years, he red shirted at Western Illinois, his coaches told him to work on all aspects of kicking from field goals to punting. By his sophomore year he was having a good enough season that he and some other teammates went to an NFL camp. While there Scifres said he was encouraged even more to continue honing his kicking skills, and that, he added, gave him more of a reason to take it more seriously.

Since being drafted by the Chargers in 2003, Scifres would learn from Bennett, including the punt that brought Bennett so much success — the drop punt.

Scifres said it took him a year to figure out, but now he’s so comfortable with it that, depending on where he’s punting from on the field and depending on the weather conditions, he can control the ball up to 40 yards.

“It’s a great club to have in your bag,” he said. “And with the returners as they are…you got to have that punt in your bag. You’ve got to make them think a little bit.”

That “unselfishness,” too is something that Scifres picked up under the tutelage of Bennett where, during his rookie year watching him, Scifres said it really sunk in that you had to have more hang time than distance because all 32 return men are very dangerous.

Scifres, in kind, has taken on the role of mentor once again this season, helping rookie punter Richard Kent throughout training camp.

“A lot of that goes back to how Darren treated me when I got here,” said Scifres.

Bennett didn’t see him as a threat to take away his job when he got drafted, but rather he took it upon himself to help Scifres better understand the game.

“When the young guys come in and they ask some of the same questions that I was asking (Bennett), I have the answers. Because now, I’ve lived every single scenario that Darren threw at me in my rookie year,” Scifres said.

As for whether the role of a punter is still fun: “Absolutely,” he said. “I enjoy every minute of it. I don’t take the hits these guys (teammates) take (and) my body works.”

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