AS FAR AS HE CAN

Colts punter Pat McAfee said he focused on improving his consistency as a kickoff specialist in the off-season. The result? Eleven touchbacks in the last two games.

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Colts Punter Pat McAfee Increasing Consistency as Kickoff Specialist

INDIANAPOLIS – To Pat McAfee, the goal is simple.

Because when it comes to kicking off in the NFL, unlike his experience in college, McAfee said there is no reason for complexities to get involved. You kick. And you kick hard.

And you try to make the ball go a long, long way.

"When it comes down to it, it comes down to the mentality that you want to kick the ball as far as you can," McAfee said as the Colts (2-1) prepared to play the Jacksonville Jaguars (1-2) at EverBank Field in Jacksonville Sunday at 4:05 p.m. "That's all I care about."

McAfee, a seventh-round selection by the Colts in the 2009 NFL Draft, not only has reached that goal this season, in the last two weeks, has done it with remarkable consistency.

McAfee, who had 21 touchbacks in 15 regular-season games as a rookie last season, has registered 11 touchbacks this season, with all 11 coming in the last two weeks.

"The biggest thing is he's more consistent," Colts Head Coach Jim Caldwell said. "I think last year he did a very good job. This year, he's hitting it more consistently."

How consistent is consistent? Consider:

Two weeks ago, in the Colts' 38-14 victory over the New York Giants, McAfee kicked off seven times, with five touchbacks. That tied the Indianapolis Colts post-Merger (1970) record for touchbacks in a game set by Adam Vinatieri in 2006. With the Colts headed to Denver the following week, McAfee jokingly talked about breaking the record and considering the thinner air in Denver, also joked of kicking off through the uprights.

He narrowly missed the latter, but his performance in Denver was no joke.

He kicked off six times in a 27-13 Colts win at INVESCO Field at Mile High Sunday.

All were touchbacks.

Vinatieri said such performances from McAfee, one of the most-outgoing, fun-loving personalities on the team, is a serious help to the Colts' special teams.

"Obviously, he's got a good sense of humor and he's a fun guy to be around, but he's a true professional in making sure he's ready to go," Vinatieri said. "He takes it to heart, and he's serious about learning his trade. You can't say enough good things about him. He's a great punter, and he's doing a great job kicking off."

Vinatieri said while leg strength is critical to kicking off effectively, consistency is as imant in the role. McAfee, Vinatieri said, has improved in that area through working in the off-season.

"He had a decent amount of touchbacks last year as well, but he's continuously gotten better," Vinatieri said. "That's just something you do with the more balls you hit. The more consistent you get, the better contact you make every single time. He's definitely honed his skills in, and he's doing a great job doing it."

Caldwell said the importance of touchbacks shouldn't be underestimated, and said this week the value could be found with a quick internet search.

"There are some pretty telling statistics in the difference between how many teams can complete 80-yard drives as opposed to a 70-yard drive," Caldwell said. "The further back, which I think most would think, the more difficult it is to get in the range to score points. Eighty-yard drives are not commonplace."

According to AdvancedNFLstats.com, the average starting position in the NFL on a non-touchback is the 32-yard line, leaving a 12-yard statistical difference between a touchback and other kickoff.

"An alternative way of thinking of those 12 yards is to think of them as one additional first down required for a team to score," the website writes. "It's one more first down the offense will need to either score a TD or get into FG range. The average first down conversion rate in the NFL is 67%, so a touchback turns a TD drive into a field goal drive or a field goal drive into a punt 33 percent of the time."

While McAfee said he never doubted his ability as a kickoff specialist, and while he performed the role in college, he also said he didn't arrive in the NFL with his skills perfectly ready for kicking off.

"Coming out of college, I was a very raw kickoff guy," McAfee said.

Said Caldwell, "We knew he could do it. He was quite versatile and a very good athlete, but you never quite know exactly until you get him out there and let him go through his paces."

Still, although McAfee said he wanted the role, it wasn't immediately his. With Vinatieri dealing with injuries in the 2009 off-season, the Colts began the season with Shane Andrus kicking off and handling kicking duties in the first game. When Andrus was released, the Colts approached McAfee about the job.

"I said, 'Most definitely,' McAfee said. "It was one of those things where I was sort of hoping they'd let me do it, but at the beginning they weren't, so I was kind of like, 'Whatever,' but as soon as they asked me to do it, I kind of stepped up to it and got to work with Vinatieri."

McAfee said while he kicked at West Virginia, the Mountaineers had him use a variety of kicks – a sky kick, a squib kick, a deep kickoff deep. Since arriving in the NFL, he said it's about distance, and while it's a process it's a process he said he enjoys and one he said he believes he can continue to hone.

"It's all about rhythm," McAfee said. "That's kind of what we work on. I never really was on a consistent pattern where I was trying to kick the ball as far as possible. When I got here, and they asked me to do the kickoffs, it was something where I actually got to work on it a little bit. When you have a guy like Adam Vinatieri – who I think could still kick off in the NFL if he had to and was a very good kickoff guy – helping me, I just tried to learn as much as possible.

"It's something I think I can still improve on and something I've been enjoying."

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