As Stanford prepares for a rematch with UCLA, one key difference in the starting lineup has gone mostly unnoticed. Ben Rhyne, a redshirt sophomore from Charlotte, N.C., will most likely start at punter on Friday night for the first time in his Stanford career.
Though it’s not the best of circumstances, with starting punter Daniel Zychlinski likely out with an arm injury suffered on a punt against UCLA, Rhyne is excited for the opportunity.
“It reminds you of high school days,” said Rhyne. “It’s been a while since I’ve been out on the field punting. I kicked off last year a little bit. It was a similar feeling, but it’s nice to be back out there.”
As Rhyne alluded to, he’s not a complete stranger to a high-pressure football atmosphere as a Stanford player. When starting kicker Jordan Williamson missed significant time with a leg injury in 2011, Rhyne took over most of the kickoff duties for the Card, including taking all of the kickoffs in Stanford’s triple-overtime victory at USC. Rhyne kicked off 18 times, averaging just under 60 yards per kickoff in mostly pooch-type kicks.
But now, as Stanford looks to win its first ever Pac-12 championship and earn a Rose Bowl berth, Rhyne will have to take over punting and holding duties for Zychlinski, one of his closest mentors.
“[Zychlinski] taught me my freshman year how to hold,” Rhyne said. “I came in as a kicker and hadn’t held before, and I was focusing on punting at the time. I’m doing a little kicking now as well. But he taught me how to hold and it’s been a project we’ve worked on over the last three years and I’m very comfortable with it”
Rhyne is the kind of person who is comfortable in most situations, whether on the field, in the locker room, in the dorm or in the classroom — Rhyne has a 3.95 GPA in biomechanical engineering. Chris Gaertner, a redshirt sophomore defensive back who is roommates and close friends with Rhyne, knows firsthand the attitude Ben brings.
“Ben’s a great teammate,” said Gaertner. “He’s always making people on the team laugh and keeps the atmosphere in the locker room really light.”
Rhyne’s replacement of the injured Zychlinski in the starting lineup most directly affects fellow redshirt sophomore Williamson. Having to change holders suddenly after two years working together can be tough on a kicker.
“It’s a little bit different,” said Williamson. “You’ve always got to adjust because I’ve been working with Daniel Zychlinski for, shoot, two years now, and he’s a phenomenal holder and I’ve been so used to the timing with him. Now you’ve got someone in there who’s a little bit different, cadence is a little bit different, and the whole timing aspect is slightly different as well. So you’ve just got to get used to that. Ben’s been doing great. Ben’s a good holder. I have no worries with him back there and I know he’ll get the job done. He’ll do a great job.”
Though Rhyne has been practicing his holding for three years now, he hasn’t had much practice time with Williamson, who said the duo hasn’t practiced together very often since training camp back in August. With the short week, practice time is at a premium, but Williamson isn’t worried.
“We’re getting some work in this week and we’ll have it nailed down,” he said.
Depth is rarely an issue at the punter position, as punters are not often injured during the season. With Rhyne replacing Zychlinski at the top of the depth chart this week, it looks like Williamson might be Rhyne’s emergency backup.
Unlike many college kickers, Williamson did not punt consistently in high school — he said the last time he punted in a game was his sophomore year of high school, back in the fall of 2007 — turning this week into a punting boot camp for the kicker.
“I started taking some snaps this week,” Williamson said. “Hit a couple punts today with the team. I’m starting to get a feel for it. … I was hitting them pretty well. The whole thing for me is just getting used to catching the ball and working with it in my hands just because it’s something I haven’t really done before.”
Knowing Rhyne and Williamson, Stanford fans need not be too concerned with the special teams situation Friday night. Williamson put it best in his last response after Monday’s practice, “At the end of the day you’re just kicking the ball with your foot.”
And Rhyne is ready to throw his foot in the ring and get Stanford to the Rose Bowl.