While we, the anxious and curious fans of the Seattle Seahawks, listened to Brock Huard during the preseason, we were told about the numerous punts of fifth round pick Michael Dickson. It was stated, multiple times, that Dickson had punts that could cause various problems for those trying to return them. Whether it’s the fluttering kangaroo kick or the spinning drop bear, is there any measurable effect to this unending arsenal of Australian punts?
Scraping through NCAA college football data, let’s take a look at Dickson against his contemporaries from 2015 to 2017 to determine what, if any, difference in fumbled catch percentage exists.
Part of the problem with scraping out NCAA data and trying to do analysis on bulk FBS data is that there are so many schools, and the quality of School A can be so far from that of School B that the comparisons stop making sense. For instance, are punters from non-power five schools—what is power five?—more likely to benefit from a fumble on the catch due to lower skill among returners? Are power five kickers more likely to benefit from fumbles of non-power five schools? These are questions that aren’t easy to answer, but for the sake of somewhat accurate comparison we will be looking at power five punters facing other power five schools to try and remove these possible sources of bias — sorry UCF, though I will admit Mac Loudermilk is a boss. Also, we will be looking at punters with at least 30 punts from 2015 to 2017.
Reducing dimensions and data availability
Like NFL data, we don’t have hang time available to take a look at and while there are more ways to slice the data, there is really only one dimension that shows anything interesting that I found.
In general, the variability of the percentage of fumbled punts decreases as the number of punts increases which makes sense and we would expect. Variance tends to decrease as sample increases, that isn’t news. With the black line representing the average fumble percentage, we see that Dickson is indeed above average. He’s not world beating and he’s not exactly drilling guys in the face.
But let’s take a look at the full data set, does Dickson stand out among all college punters since 2013 with at least 100 punts?
The short answer is yes, but again not in a way that makes him an extreme outlier. What’s really interesting about this? Well, for punters this type of advantage tends to almost completely evaporate at the NFL level.
Among NFL punters with at least 100 punts between 2009 and 2017, the average fumbled catch percentage is less than one percent. Even more telling is within that population the punters that are/were really good at causing fumbles with their kicks hit about two percent. The kick returners at the NFL level are the very best NCAA has to offer, we should expect they won’t fumble nearly as often.
Did Dickson cause fumbles more often at the college level? The answer appears to be yes. But given how much better returners are in the NFL, we shouldn’t expect that to carry over at the same rate. A four-percent fumble percentage would make him elite, half of that would make him among the best in the modern NFL. If Dickson can hit two-percent, which would be a pleasant surprise, that would mean one or two extra turnovers per season on average. So while the allure of exotic punts may have us excited, the effect is likely to be much less pronounced than has been espoused by in game commentary. Sorry, Brock.