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Steelers couldn't resist punter Sepulveda's powerful leg

| Sunday, June 3, 2007

The story that is a part of family lore took place at a gas station when boys started being boys, specifically ones that had been cooped up during a long drive.

Daniel Sepulveda and his older brother, Stephen, were "horsing around," as their father recalled, when Daniel went hurtling into one of the family vehicles, backside first.

He hit the SUV so hard he left a dent in it.

If Sepulveda can make the sort of lasting impression with the Steelers as he did on that vehicle, well, he'll make his new team quite happy.

The Steelers opened themselves -- and Sepulveda, by extension -- to second guessing by investing a fourth-round draft pick on a punter and giving up a sixth-round pick to trade up to get one at the end of April.

Not that the term "punter" defines Sepulveda.

At 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, he is built like a linebacker, which is fitting because that's the position he intended to play when he went to Baylor as an invited walk-on. And he may have been the first specialist in the history of the NFL scouting combine to come away disappointed when told that teams didn't need to see how many times he could bench 225 pounds.

Sepulveda's left leg really packs a wallop. He puts such a charge into his kicks that it seems like he could dent footballs as easily as he does SUVs.

Sepulveda averaged 45.24 yards per punt at Baylor -- the highest average in Division I college football history (minimum of 250 attempts) -- and twice won the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the top punter in college football.

"(The ball) just exploded off his foot," Baylor coach Guy Morriss said. "He's going to swap a lot of real estate (for the Steelers)."

That is certainly the hope of the team that finished near the bottom of the NFL in punting average (41.3 yards per kick) last season.

Sepulveda, 23, is adamant that he still has to win the job during training camp -- his only competition at this point is Mike Barr -- but it's safe to say it is his to lose.

And to think he was a reluctant punter not too long ago.

A deeply religious person who has read the Bible every day since he has been in Pittsburgh, Sepulveda attributes his wandering over to where the punters were practicing one day at Baylor to "God's plan."

He had little experience punting and no technique, but his powerful leg was apparent to the coaches that watched him kick. Baylor redshirted Sepulveda his freshman year with the intention of turning him into a punter.

It worked -- sort of.

Sepulveda won the job as a redshirt freshman, but the prospect of playing every down still tugged at his heart. He called his father to say he was through with punting at the end of the season, and that he was going back to playing football.

"If I had realized then that if I ended up being the starting punter that I wouldn't get the opportunity to play something else, then I probably wouldn't have done it," Sepulveda said.

Morriss said Sepulveda "kept bugging and bugging" him about playing linebacker and occasionally he'd relent, letting his prized punter take part in practice drills.

But as Sepulveda developed into one of the premier punters in the nation, Morriss decided the injury risk of wasn't worth it for the team or Sepulveda.

Sepulveda had to settle for making the occasional tackle after a punt, and during one game in 2004 he unleashed his inner linebacker on an opposing returner.

"Almost knocked him out," Morriss said. "The kid's not just your typical specialist."

Sepulveda has graduated to the highest level of the game, and the speed in the NFL is such that he'll have to get off his punts faster than he did at Baylor and be more cognizant of hang time.

Of punting in college, Sepulveda said, "I wasn't trying to hang the ball up for five seconds. I was trying to mash it 55, 60 yards, sometimes hit it over the guy's head. There's no tolerance for mashing the ball and hitting a line drive and having it come back."

He hasn't just changed the approach he takes to punting since joining the Steelers (Sepulveda signed a three-year, $1.46 million contract with the team last Thursday). He also is working on a new technique, one in which Sepulveda kicks the point of the football.

It allows him to "swing as hard" as he can while still giving him better distance control, hang time and aim than if he kicked the meaty part of the football.

"It's going to be really good for me," Sepulveda said of the technique he has been honing during OTA (Organized Team Activity) practices. "If I try to kick it 80 percent, 75 percent, I'll shank one out of five. You can't have that."

Fans won't accept that, especially since the Steelers haven't taken a punter so high in the draft since 1978, when they selected Craig Colquitt in the third round.

Sepulveda said his faith helps keep things, such as the demands of his new job, in perspective, and he can also lean on his close-knit family.

He is the second oldest of four boys, and his father, who is CEO of Interstate Batteries, is also one of his agents.

Asked if he has any concerns as a father and an agent about the pressure his son will face, Carlos Sepulveda said, "None at all. I like his chances, especially if you look at his track record."

Rare talent

• Averaged 46.5 yards per punt his senior season, with a long of 78 yards.

• Became the only punter to win the Ray Guy Award twice.

• He and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mike Singletary are the only three-time All-Americans in Baylor football history.

• Had four punts blocked his redshirt freshman season but none in his other three seasons at Baylor.

• His older brother, Stephen, played linebacker at Baylor.

• Hails from Dallas, but grew up rooting for the 49ers (his family lived in San Francisco for a couple of years).

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