FOXBORO, Mass. — Zoltan Mesko was once a finalist for the Ray Guy Award during his senior season at Michigan. This preseason, though, the Patriots’ punter for the last three seasons is competing with a two-time Ray Guy Award winner.
Ryan Allen was named the nation’s best punter in each of the last two seasons at Louisiana Tech and the undrafted rookie is making a name for himself at Pats camp.
Mesko has been the Patriots’ punt specialist since they drafted him out of Michigan in the fifth round in 2010. He’s been reliable and consistent during his three years in New England, sporting one of the most accurate legs in the NFL. He ranked third in the NFL in 2012 in punt percentage inside the 20, landing 47 percent of his punts in the red zone. Yet, his one real flaw is that he lacks the booming power typically expected of a franchise punter — a place where Allen excels.
During Friday’s preseason opener against the Eagles, both Mesko and Allen had a chance to show off their power. Mesko averaged 44.7 yards on three punts (46, 44, 44) on the night, which is even better than the 43.1 yards he averaged in 2012. But Allen showed him up, averaging 54 yards per on two punts, with boots of 52 and 56 yards.
Setting aside Friday night’s boom show, Allen also sported one of the strongest legs in country in college. He finished among the top five punters in yards per punt each of the last two seasons at Louisiana Tech, leading the nation with an average of 48 yards in 2012. The length of Allen’s punts should have Mesko worried, but so should the fact that the rookie even attempted a punt on Friday night. Allen’s two punts against the Eagles actually marked the first time anyone other than Mesko has punted in a game for the Patriots since he was drafted in 2010.
While the two are pitted in competition, Mesko and Allen have developed a close relationship. The rookie even mentioned his veteran counterpart as being a mentor.
“It’s a great opportunity for me,” Allen said. “I’m a rookie. Zoltan’s a great guy. He’s been great in the locker room, out on the field as well. I’m learning from him as well as both the coaches, coach [Joe] Judge and coach [Scott] O’Brien, and that’s all I came here to do is learn and gain experience and try to better myself.”
While he seems to have an inside track on the punter battle as of now, the one area that could hold Allen back from making the Patriots’ 53-man roster is his lack of experience as a holder. Allen didn’t have any experience holding for field goals in college and Patriots’ kicker Stephen Gostkowski has gotten extremely comfortable with Mesko over the last three seasons. That is still just a small piece in the battle, but if it’s a dead heat come Sept. 1, it could make all the difference in the world.
There are still almost three weeks left before final cuts have to be made, and this already has all the makings of a last-minute decision. At this point in the preseason, Mesko is still the clubhouse leader for the job — if only because he is the incumbent. But he may want to watch out, because Allen is bearing down on his heels.
Photo via Twitter/@NEPatsFan_11