Last season, Lions punter Sam Martin averaged 47.2 yards a punt, sixth best in the NFL. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
Allen Park — Sam Martin booted punts so far during last Wednesday’s mandatory minicamp it was a bit surprising to hear him nonchalantly describe them.
One went 84 yards — with a heavy breeze — because the Lions were kicking from the 20 and Reggie Bush had to catch it nearly halfway into the end zone.
The rest sailed between 60-75 yards, and most dropped near the sideline.
“Sam has obviously got a live leg,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “He’s athletic. I anticipate that he’s going to continue to improve because obviously in only his second year, he’s young. But he’s done a nice job.”
The Lions were so impressed with Martin’s rookie season he’s currently going unopposed for punting duties this season. He and long snapper Don Muhlbach are the only players without a backup on the 90-man roster.
A fifth-round pick from Appalachian State, Martin turned a punting game that had been a weakness for the Lions in recent years into a strength. He averaged 47.2 yards, sixth in the NFL, and 40.4 net yards, ranking 10th. Martin’s punts also yielded an average return of 7.8 yards, 11th in the league.
And with Martin as the punter and primary kickoff man, the Lions didn’t allow a return touchdown last season for the first time since 2004.
“I had ups and downs,” Martin said. “I think raw numbers, overall, it was a good season. Coming into my first year, I think my expectations at that point, I met them.
“But now — other than a few punts here or there, a few kickoffs here or there I’d like to have back obviously — I think I set the bar high. Now I just want to keep improving.”
Among the kicks Martin may want to have back was the 28-yard punt in Week 7 that gave the Bengals the ball at their 49-yard line with 26 seconds left, which allowed them to drive for the winning field goal.
Martin also had a punt blocked against the Buccaneers in Week 12 and received some blame for a failed fake field goal in the Week 11 collapse against the Steelers, though it was a called play.
This season, Martin is focused on being more technically sound and said he’s more comfortable with his punts and found a way to shorten his steps.
“Technically, watching film myself, I noticed lots of times no matter what the result of the punt was, technique would deviate,” he said. “Even if I hit a good ball, sometimes I wouldn’t like the way I followed through or something. A big focus there was just getting more technically sound and repeating the same thing over and over, which has resulted in a lot more control with my directional punts.”
And, because Martin punted so well as a rookie, the only competition he’ll have to worry about is for kickoff duties, which seventh-round kicker Nate Freese said he wants to win.
“I mean, he’s a kicker; he’s supposed to want to,” Martin said. “Whoever the better kicker is will get the job.”