HE'S THE LONELIEST TROJAN MALONE IS NATION'S TOP PUNTER.
A young man bouncing a football off the ground as he walks through a hotel lobby is bound to receive a few sideways glances. In fact, that's about the only way Tom Malone gets noticed these days.
As the punter for No. 1-ranked USC, Malone can sometimes go a quarter or more without stepping onto the field. Last year, he was the country's most proficient punter but wasn't recognized as such because he didn't have enough kicks to qualify. It can be a lonesome job, but one at which Malone excels.
``He just propels the ball so far down the field,'' said USC special teams coach Dennis Slutak. ``It's amazing.''
Malone's raw statistics are down from last year, when he averaged 49.0 yards per kick and became USC's first All-America punter, but numbers can be deceiving, because he has improved his ability to pin opponents inside the 20-yard line, rather than booming balls out of the end zone for touchbacks.
Heading into Saturday's game against Arizona, 23 of Malone's 37 punts stopped inside the 20, compared with 26 of 42 last season. The foundation for Malone's improvement can be found on the practice field.
That's where Malone can be found, walking alone down the sideline, holding a football in front of him and dropping it on the ground, much like dribbling a basketball. It's a drill, designed to improve the position of the ball when Malone drops it, a crucial part of a successful punt.
``I don't kick in practice after Thursdays, so it's just a way to build up the muscle memory,'' Malone said. ``The drop is the most important thing, so if you get it right, you're in good shape.''
The drop drill, which Malone started last year, is designed to help his consistency. A tip he picked up from Darren Bennett, a 10-year NFL veteran, is helping his accuracy.
Placing punts inside the 20 had been Malone's biggest weakness before this season, but Bennett's tips, which he came through years of playing Australian Rules Football, helped Malone control the distance of his punts and put backspin on the ball when needed.
``That's something I've struggled with since I've been here,'' Malone said. ``Darren is amazing at it, and he gave me some good tips. The second game of the season is when I really started working on it.
``The difference is you basically just drop the ball straight down and you kick it as hard as you can, and because of the way you drop it you can't kick it as far. It goes end-over and backward, and it doesn't travel as far because you're hitting the nose of the ball. I'm starting to feel a little better about it.''
Malone, who entered college at 145 pounds, is now a 205-pound junior with tremendous physical skills. Slutak cites leg quickness as Malone's biggest attribute and said the punter has room for improvement.
``There's no question that he can hit the home run, probably further than anybody,'' Slutak said. ``You just need to be consistent. You can't have a 60-yard punt and then a 33-yard punt. Everybody has seen how far he can hit them, he just needs to do that every time.''
Rich Hammond, (818) 713-3611
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Nov 14, 2004|
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