By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Zach Von Rosenberg knew the truth of Saturday’s windy, rainy weather for LSU’s clash with Tennessee.
When the ball is wet, and the wind is spiraling inside the stadium like a flushing toilet, it’s far better to be the guy trying to kick it than the one trying to catch it.
“With the wind swirling the way it was, any returner back there is at a huge disadvantage,” LSU’s redshirt freshman punter said after the Tigers’ 30-10 win. “You could even see with (LSU returner) D.J. (Chark) – a guy who I feel is very confident returning the football – he didn’t want to risk it. That’s hard to do. Field position is everything, and if you’re not able to catch the ball, the ball could bounce and roll 20 yards.”
“It’s a huge disadvantage with 25 mile per hour winds, trying to catch any football hit high up in the air. You’re at a disadvantage from the get-go.”
Von Rosenberg, a 27 year-old former professional baseball pitcher affectionately nicknamed “Grandpa,” took advantage of that disadvantage on Saturday. While the Tigers’ offense stalled early, managing just 19 first quarter yards, Tennessee punt returner Marquez Callaway dropped two of Von Rosenberg’s skied punts, both of which led to points for LSU.
The first, a 47-yarder in the first quarter, was directly into a 25 mile per hour wind that hung up the kick. Callaway shortchanged it, and it skipped in front and off of him to the Tennessee 15, where Russell Gage scooped it up to set up a Connor Culp field goal four plays later.
“What I try to do is get as good a spiral as I can,” Von Rosenberg said. “If you don’t spiral the ball into the wind, it’s just going to get knocked down. If you’re able to spiral the ball off your foot, it’ll cut through the wind pretty decent. It may not go 40 or 50 yards, but it will at least change field position. If you don’t get that spiral, it could go 15 or 20 yards.”
The second came in the second quarter, with the wind at Von Rosenberg’s back. He booted it 49 yards in the air, putting Callaway on his heels. The Volunteer return man misjudged it again, the ball bouncing off his arms and over his head to the Tennessee 19. Michael Divinity claimed that one, and Darrel Williams rushed in from 10 yards three plays later to put the Tigers ahead 10-3, despite having, to that point, just 39 yards of offense.
It was the highlight of a season in which Von Rosenberg – a former walk-on tight end who took over for a struggling Josh Growden early in the year and hasn’t given up the spot since – has emerged as a special teams weapon for LSU. He finished the game with five punts, averaging 49.2 yards per kick. Three landed inside the 20 and one went 60 yards, in addition to the pair of turnovers his kicks caused.
Even so, having seen the conditions at field level, he sympathized with Callaway’s struggles.
“After the second one, I’m not going to lie, I felt a little bad for (Callaway),” Von Rosenberg said. “You hear the home fans screaming at him. I’m running down the field, I’m watching what the ball’s doing in the air. It’s going back and forth. The first punt was even worse. The second one, I think it was a little bit in his head, and he was worried about just catching the football a little more than he would’ve been had he not muffed the first one. You feel for the guy. Everybody’s looking at you. It’s the biggest play in the game at that point. It’s a costly error.”
The plays, Ed Orgeron said, were “the difference in the game.”
“It kept them in bad field position, and it gave us some hope,” he said.
Von Rosenberg probably didn’t expect to emerge as LSU’s starting punter. That was to be Growden’s role, but Von Rosenberg’s consistency this season – he’s up to 43.4 yards per punt and has now put six punts inside the opponent’s 20 over the last three games – means he could comfortably keep the spot for the foreseeable future. There’s still work to do, though. Not every returner will drop his punts. Von Rosenberg knows that while the weather is out of his control, his development as a punter is not.
“I need to improve my flexibility,” he said. “I need to improve my drop mechanics. But getting the hangtime and spiraling the football, it’s coming. I’m still transitioning over from playing tight end. I’m losing some weight, I’m doing some yoga. I have a feeling I can get a lot better.”