FOXBORO — You could hear it when the ball came off his foot. You could see it with the look on his face.
The first time Jake Bailey punted an NFL-sized football, he looked like a kid on Christmas morning.
“It’s a lot easier to punt,” Bailey said. “It was awesome. Surprising and fun is a good way to put it.”
The moment his foot connected with the sweet spot on the ball, Bailey’s confidence rose. He was about to enter the NFL and his job was, in a sense, going to be easier than it was in college. Stanford special teams coordinator Pete Alamar tried to warn Bailey. He knew that his star punter was going to be so excited the moment he touched an NFL ball, he wanted to him to wait until his collegiate career was over.
“The NFL balls are really different and I just told him, ‘look, trust me, when you pick up an NFL ball you will be like, ‘wow.’ You’ll be like a kid in a candy store,’” Alamar said. “Because the ball’s got a bigger sweet spot. It’s a little more aerodynamic. I said, ‘you’re gonna enjoy the heck out of it. Be patient.’”
Bailey kept his word and finished his 2018 senior season with All-American honors, punting with a smaller Nike ball. His efforts earned him an invitation to the Senior Bowl and entrance into the NFL Combine — no small feat for a punter.
Finally, in January, Alamar broke out a bag of NFL-sized footballs, which are larger by about a half-inch in length and a full inch in circumference.
“And on the first day, there was kind of that wide eyed-Jake look, like ‘Oh boy. This is gonna be fun,’” Alamar said. “He just did a nice job transitioning to that. We had to make a little bit of an adjustment on the drop and he was knocking the ball.”
That hasn’t changed.
In his first NFL season, this Patriots rookie has put together one of the best performances this franchise has ever seen from a punter. This 22-year-old looks like a natural, but 2019 marks just the sixth year he’s punted full-time.
Learning from pros
Pro Bowl punter Mat McBriar and fellow NFL veteran punter Sav Rocca were putting on a show at Santa Fe Christian High School. Bailey was here to train, but couldn’t take his eyes off these booming punts on his high school field in Solana Beach, Calif.
Every weekend, kicking coach Michael Husted, who kicked in the NFL for nine seasons, brought his younger students and professionals together to train. For Bailey, it was a motivating experience.
“On every Sunday really, I would go out and kick with a bunch of NFL kickers and they’d actually come work out at my high school. So it was very easy place for me to develop,” Bailey said. “I remember a time I was out on the field and Mat McBriar and Sav Rocca were out there punting. They were just pinning the ball on the sideline every single punt. I was like, ‘wow, those guys are really good.’”
Bailey was always a good athlete. He played soccer, baseball and ran track. With football, he played wide receiver, running back and cornerback. It was happenstance that he ever began kicking. When Bailey was sophomore, the varsity kicker was removed from the team so the JV kicker was called up.
At the time, Bailey was playing on the offense and defensive units, but he offered to kick, and sometimes he did. But he didn’t become a full-time punter until his senior year. He had the perfect kicking coach in Husted to help guide him. Those practice sessions with NFL veterans also helped.
“I tell guys, ‘hey look, let’s work on things, but make sure you know, stop and watch the older guys. See what their technique is — because we’re all visual learners,’” Husted said. “Jake is very studious and very attentive and so just kind of start working on it and working on it.”
Bailey always showed potential and willingness to learn. Husted remembers him booting kickoffs into the end zone as an underclassman. There was one practice, in particular, where Bailey punted a ball 60 yards downfield to the amazement of his coaches.
“You knew that he was going to do something at the next level regardless,” Husted said. “Jake was steadfast wanting to do this. He would practice his drop drills before practice instead of just getting out there and cranking the ball away. He always was paying attention to the details.”
Honing his skills
It was Alamar who convinced Bailey to drop kicking (he hit multiple 50-plus yard field goals in high school) and focus on punting/kickoffs full-time. When the student arrived on the Stanford campus, he was that metaphorical lump of clay.
Bailey had natural raw talent with an emphasis on raw.
“This is a guy that through high school, not only kicked and punted but played a position up until his senior year,” said Alamar. “So when he got here, we had to work on some things.”
That’s putting it mildly. He started with the basics — how to hold and drop the ball.
Bailey was taught to “live life on a line.” Picture yourself walking straight on train tracks — that’s how to approach punting. If you walk straight, you’ll punt straight. He could “wail on the ball” with the best of them, but at Stanford, the focus is directional punting — aiming to pin the opponent inside the 20-yard line instead of booming the ball as far as you can downfield.
That meant teaching Bailey to not swing as hard as he could. Alamar calls it “85 to do 100.” It means a punter should aim to kick the ball with 85% of his ability. Focusing on not kicking as hard as you can will actually get you to kick the ball harder.
“If you’re thinking, I’m going to swing and try to kill the ball, a lot of times, you’re going to make mistakes,” Alamar said. “So it was just learning and finding that rhythm and then his steps. He was really long when he got here and would drive the ball. So one of the things we talked about was three words to try to just draw yourself into what your thoughts are so you don’t have a bunch of stuff running through your head.”
Those three words were “short, tall, smooth.” That locked him into his proper technique.
“Short, I want to keep my steps really short, so compact, and powerful,” Bailey explained. “Tall is my body position — I want to be upright so I can use my full lever, full pendulum swing, and then smooth is just being smooth through the whole motion.”
Patriots trade up
Nick Caserio, the Patriots director of player personnel, was at Stanford’s Pro Day on April 4 and saw Bailey workout.
After that, the Patriots disappeared.
“They came out and saw him but didn’t have as much contact,” Alamar said. “Not directly as some other teams that had called in and we talked to.”
The Patriots never worked out Bailey privately, met with him at the Combine or brought him to Gillette Stadium for a pre-draft visit. As it turns out, there was a reason behind it all. According to ESPN, the Patriots distanced themselves from the talented punter “for fear that other clubs would learn of their interest.”
During the draft, the Patriots made their move — trading up and jumping over three teams (including the Chargers who needed a punter) in the fifth round to select Bailey with the 163rd overall pick.
“It was an awesome feeling,” Bailey said. “It was a really nice feeling of being wanted and wanting to go in there and prove them right.”
It was noteworthy when the Patriots traded up to draft a punter with veteran Ryan Allen on the roster. This season, it’s been easy to see why.
Ask Pro Bowl special teamer Matthew Slater about Bailey and you’ll hear the word “elite.” Last weekend, the rookie set a Patriots franchise record, with 33 punts pinned inside the 20-yard line. Bailey entered this week tied for the NFL lead with punts placed inside the 20-yard line.
When the Pro Bowl rosters are announced next week, Bailey has a good chance of hearing his name called.
“He’s got the ability to do that and honestly, he’s just going to get better,” Alamar said. “Jake is still young and he’s going to continue to get stronger. He’s going to become more and more comfortable. I keep telling him, ‘you still haven’t peaked.’ I think he’s going to do great things.”