Tulane junior Ryan Wright believes his substantial gain in distance on punts is directly correlated to his significant weight loss in the offseason.
Pushing 260 pounds when the coronavirus pandemic started, he returned in the summer at about 235. Although the body of a kicker is one of the last things anyone looks at, the slimmed down version of Wright is leading the American Athletic Conference in punting by a wide margin.
Added to the Ray Guy award watch list this week as Tulane (3-4, 1-4 AAC) prepares for Saturday’s game at East Carolina (1-4, 1-3), he ranks second nationally with an average of 47.1 yards and is on pace to break the school’s single-season record (46.2 by Brad Hill in 1997).
“I feel a lot more explosive,” Wright said. “Last year I just felt really slow. Running was hard on me and my leg swing was not exactly where I wanted it to be speed wise. Now I’m able to swing my leg all the way through the ball.”
The difference is nearly six yards per punt from his 2019 average of 41.4, which ranked in the bottom half of the AAC. Constant chatter from Tulane coaches about him getting in shape finally seeped into his conscience.
“I told him it’s not going to happen until you want it to happen, and he decided he wanted to have it happen,” coach Willie Fritz said. “You can see the difference in his flexibility.”
Wright’s lifestyle changes ran the gamut. He stopped snacking as much. He ran almost every day. HIs personal trainer from his hometown in California encouraged him to stay away from fatty foods, emphasizing lean meats, greens and the right carbohydrates, including red potatoes and cauliflower.
The changes helped him lower his off time (the elapsed time from receiving the ball from long snapper Ethan Hudak to kicking it) to 1.95 seconds from 2.5.
“He does a great job of getting the ball off quickly,” Fritz said. “If we just had the snapper and the shield (three-man blocking wall in front of the punter), it’s going to be tough for anyone to have a chance to block a punt.”
Still, the payoff did not come immediately. Wright missed Tulane’s opener at South Alabama because of a COVID-19 contact tracing issue. He struggled against Navy when he returned, beginning with a 30-yarder off the side of his foot and averaging a paltry 36.4 yards on five attempts.
The slow start makes his current numbers even more impressive. Of his last 10 punts, nine traveled at least 47 yards. He unleashed a 62-yarder against Central Florida that landed 56 yards past the line of scrimmage as the returner fell down trying to get back to it.
He topped that effort with another 62-yarder that went out of bounds at the 1 against Temple at Yulman Stadium.
“The funny thing about that one is I thought it was going to the end zone,” he said. “I didn’t really know what was going on until I heard those cheers.”
His next step is avoiding the clunkers that show up a little too often. He had a 26-yarder against UCF. His hang time hurt him at Houston, when the Cougars had returns of 15, 16, 19, 24 and 34.
Wright, a starting quarterback for his final two years of high school in San Ramon, California, did not decide to become a college punter until his senior season. He was a little raw when he arrived at Tulane despite being rated the No. 4 punting prospect in the country by Kohl’s Kicking Camp.
His potential is unlimited.
“He’s got as strong a leg as anybody in the country, but the distance, the location and the hang time, we want all those things to match,” Fritz said. “He’s taken tremendous strides, and if he improves on his consistency, he can be one of the top punters in the country.”
Redshirt sophomore running back Ygenio Booker (nine carries, 41 yards) had surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament on Thursday. Fritz said he might return for the finale against Memphis. The Wave is down to three healthy scholarship running backs—Stephon Huderson, Cameron Carroll and Amare Jones. … Fritz said linebacker Marvin Moody, who was held out of the Temple game with an unspecified injury, would be a game-time decision after doing little in practice this week.