By virtue of being one of the fastest players on the Carolina Panthers roster, Colin Jones serves as gunner on the punting unit, tasked with the job of getting downfield quickly and tackling the returner.
In the second quarter of last week’s game against Miami, Jones looked up and wondered when punter Brad Nortman’s 72-yard punt would ever come down.
“It’s a good feeling when you’re running down there and you’re thinking, man it’s got to be coming down,” said Jones, who runs a 4.34-second 40-yard dash. “He kicks such a good ball and he gives it so much hang time, it makes our job so much easier.
“You kind of look up and you’re just running and running, and that’s just a (heck) of a kick. Unbelievable.”
Nortman’s biggest punt of his pro career, and tied for the second-longest in the NFL this season, came in the best game of his two-year career. A 2012 sixth-round draft pick, Nortman punted seven times last Sunday for 397 yards, averaging 56.7 yards per punt and gaining a net of 46.6 yards per punt.
“We’ve played a lot of games where I’ve had punts that everybody liked, but I feel like maybe it was more of a lopsided score,” Nortman said. “This game being close and having everyone potentially being a factor in the game, it was good to have a really good game and to also do it when it really needed to be had.”
Of those seven, Nortman “flipped the field” three times, which means the opponent began its drive at least 50 yards from where the Panthers punted.
His 72-yarder went from the Carolina 17 to the Miami 11. Though Marcus Thigpin returned it for nine yards, a holding penalty pushed the Dolphins back 10 yards and they began their drive on their own 10.
“That is huge because you get yourself out from under that shadow,” Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. “They’re no longer looking at having to only go 50 yards to score a touchdown, now they have to go 70 yards. That’s a lot tougher.
Because of an efficient Panthers offense, Nortman is 25th in the league in punts with 46. But his season average of 47.6 yards per punt ranked sixth in the NFL and his net of 40.3 is 11th.
Nortman flourished while Carolina’s offense sputtered in last week’s 20-16 win. Punting seven times in a game allowed him to get into a rhythm as opposed to sitting on the sideline for much of the first half and finishing with two punts.
Though flipping the field is a welcomed advantage for the Panthers, there’s always the concern of outkicking the coverage. Nortman got a hangtime between 4.7 and 4.8 seconds on his 72-yard punt, and he said he’s gotten as much as 5.4 seconds in a game to as low as 4 seconds.
“I’m very confident in my cover team,” Nortman said. “Obviously with the kind of caliber returners that are in the NFL it’s always a possibility, but I like to think for most of my punts I get sufficient hang time to get our guys down the field.
“I trust in their coverage so much that even if the ball does come out low, I know they’re going to stop them.”
For his efforts last week, Nortman earned a game ball from Rivera. Nortman’s punting may fly under the radar, but he’s appreciated by his teammates.
“It’s like I told those guys several weeks back: you never really think about it until it becomes a problem,” Rivera said. “When you’re not flipping the field and they constantly have a short field, then you notice it. I think it’s gone almost unnoticed how well he has kicked for us this year.”
Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9