Colts Punter Having Great Season

Friday, September 29th 2000, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indianapolis Colts punter Hunter Smith is making people forget his disappointing rookie season.

``I feel like a completely different punter,'' he said. ``It's been an absolutely 180 degree turnaround.''

Three games into the season, Smith ranks first in the NFL with an average of 52.5 yards per punt. Even better is his league-leading net average of 42.1 yards.

Smith was selected NFL special teams player of the month on Thursday, the first Indianapolis player to win the award since 1996.

``It's great, I think it's well-deserved,'' coach Jim Mora said. ``He's had some good games.''

It's a very different Smith from the one who struggled through his rookie season, when he was last in the league in net average and had two punts blocked.

``It was a very humbling experience,'' he said. ``I think that's one thing some people need. Not everyone needs it. There are going to be some rookies who come out and do a great job without having to suffer a little bit.''

As a seventh-round draft pick from Notre Dame, Smith won the starting job in training camp of his rookie season. But his leg had become overworked.

``You finish your senior year in college and then you play the All-Star games and then you have the combine,'' Smith said. ``Then you have personal workouts, and you have to stay on top of your game to get drafted. Then you go to mini-camps, to summer school and summer camp, and there's really not a break in there.

``That's the most I ever punted. But I don't blame it on fatigue, I blame it on inexperience.''

Whatever the reason, Smith had a slow start that culminated in a Week 8 disaster against Dallas. Of his three punts, one was returned 76 yards, one was a touchback. The net result: a 16.3-yard average — and that wasn't even the worst part.

``The Dallas game was definitely the low point,'' Smith said. ``I shanked one punt to Deion (Sanders) and had to tackle him. And the next punt was blocked.''

But Smith started regaining confidence late in the season and has benefitted from work with special teams coach Kevin Spencer.

``It was all technique,'' Spencer said. ``When he did something good he was very consistent, when he didn't he wasn't consistent.''

Spencer worked with Smith three times a week just on technique. That began in March, and it wasn't until a month later that Spencer allowed Smith to start punting.

What Spencer and the rest of the league now see is a new punter. And what Smith has is a new image — as one of the league's best.

``Like I said, it's confidence,'' Smith said. ``It's not wanting the team to punt, but wanting to do a good job for your team, and it's not just wanting to do a good job, it's knowing you can do a good job.''

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