It's not often that a punter ranks among a team's most popular players. So needless to say, it takes a special type to make that happen, and Arizona State's Josh Hubner is exactly that.
The strong-legged senior had a solid debut season for the Sun Devils in 2011, ranking 45th in the nation with a net average of 41.3 yards-per-punt. But beyond his ability to hang a good kick, it's his unique personality that has endeared him the most to Sun Devil Nation.
From his articulate, offbeat, and entertaining thoughts and tweets, to his collection of ASU tattoos, Hubner holds a place with a fanbase that few punters can claim. I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with him, and we covered a wide range of topics, from his candid thoughts on last season's collapse, why he became a punter, the art of dropping a kick inside the five and much more.
Brad Denny: In your opinion, what were the reasons for the collapse last season, and what lessons have the returning players taken away from that experience?
Josh Hubner: I don't think you can put blame onto one area. To put it in perspective, I think guys were satisfied. Guys were satisfied with being mediocre. We came out of the gate on fire. I think a lot of guys started thinking "Oh, we're really good." We started getting ranked and stuff like that, and guys became content. At one point, we were coasting. The blame goes everywhere. It starts at the top and moves down. Lack of discipline, that has been a reoccurring theme this summer, as far as a problem from last season. So I think it was a combination of lack of discipline and guys not being coached the best way they could have been from a mental aspect. Then it went downhill from there--offensively, defensively, special teams. It wasn't up to par. When we became bowl eligible, I think guys were like, "Hey, were bowl eligible for the first time ever, let's just take what we can get."
But that's a thing of the past now. Guys are hungry. I've never been a part of a program before where everyone--collectively--wants the same thing. It's a mutual feeling throughout the program, not just the players, but the fans, the coaching staff, the medical staff, the media. It's universal, and I think we're in good shape this year.
JH: In high school, I was that guy. I played everything. There were only a few I never played. Physically, I'm not what you'd expect a punter to be, but mentally, I'm definitely a punter. I don't want to go out onto the field and get hit by Evan Finkenberg at full speed. I really enjoy doing what I do. But what that does is make our special teams unpredictable. I can throw the ball, I can run the ball. I've got a great, great, great punt team in front of me, and they can lay some big blocks and we can see what we can get going...not to say that we'll be running any fake punts this year [gives a sly look]. I think the transition was a little hard for me, going from high school to junior college. At junior college, they wanted me to play tight end and linebacker. I did that for a little while, but then they said, "We're just going to have you punt, because if you get hurt, we don't have a punter." I took on the role of just being a punter, and it was a tough pill to swallow at first, but the more I do it, the more I fall in love with it. I want to make a professional career out of it, I want to have an All-American season to put my team in position to make plays and capitalize on field position.
BD: How would you evaluate your first season as the Sun Devil punter?
JH: I'm my own worst critic. My parents tell me that all the time. You'll see a coach screaming in my face on the sideline and inside, I'm being harder on myself. I'm never satisfied, I'm always out there trying to get better. Anytime I do something, I can always do it better. I put the ball down on the one-yard line; I could have put it on the half-yard line. I kick the ball 59 yards; I could have kicked it 69 yards. For me, there is never any satisfaction with my performance, which is a blessing and a curse. It's fuel to the fire to keep me motivated. As a punter, I think I did pretty well. There's definitely a lot of areas to improve, especially if I want to make a career out of this. I've been working hard all summer, not just weights, but conditioning, flexibility, staying healthy.
BD: What have you been working on improving this offseason?
JH: I was dealing with some muscle tightness and soreness in my back, so I really, really was preaching flexibility. I'm a big guy as it is, and the bigger you are, the tighter your muscles are going to be. Take a look at a guy like James Morrison. There's a reason they call him the "Tank", because he's built like one. You look at a tank on the battlefield, it's big, it's strong, it's powerful, but it's not necessarily very versatile. For me, I need to find a healthy balance between the two, because I'm always going to be a big guy and there's nothing I can do about that. If I focus on staying flexible that is the key. The more flexibility, the more fluid you are with punting, and the higher and farther the ball is going to fly. If I can stay flexible, I'm going to be in a good position.
BD: How has the new staff made you a better punter?
JH: There's only a certain amount of knowledge and coaching that you can give to a punter and a kicker before you're like "That's the area where I don't really know what I'm talking about. I'm just going to let him do his thing." But Coach Graham is unique in the sense that he is very meticulous and he's very attentive to detail. The guy has seen countless guys who are now professional kickers, professional punters, professional athletes, so he knows what it takes, and he pays attention to that. He really preaches how these are game changing plays, and he puts a lot of emphasis on the fundamentals of punting. For me personally, he took my steps and he shortened them. He was very adamant about that, which makes sense because I'm a big guy with big strides. At first, I didn't know because it was out of my comfort zone, but the more I researched it, I realized that was what was best. At the beginning, it seemed like he was demanding something, but then I realized he was trying to help and make this team better.
BD: What are the key steps to pinning a kick inside the five-yard line?
JH: I actually kick the ball completely different than a normal punt. It's called an Australian-style punt. You see guys like Ben Graham and Sav Rocca, who are NFL punters, do it. They drop the nose down, and the ball flies like a field goal with backspin. I self-taught myself in high school and began mastering it. The cool thing about that punt is that it never really takes much work. I don't know if it's because it comes naturally to me or because it's an easier style of kick. But anytime we're on the opposite 45 and in, I'm going to drop the nose down and kick it, and nine times out of ten, that ball will hit where I'm aiming it for and go straight up or backwards, which is what we want. I think the percentage of teams that score starting inside their own 20 is less than 10%. So if you can put a team inside their own 20, you've put your defense in a much better position to make a stop. I had something like 25 kicks inside the 20 last year (24 of his 62), and that's something I take a lot of pride in and can improve upon that too.
BD: Alex Garoutte told me recently that one of the things he really liked about the new regime was that the specialists now are more "football players". That seems like a change that suits you well, so how have the coaches done that?
JH : Coach Erickson was a very traditional coach. We used to joke around in practice about running fake punts, and the guy would laugh it off. Dennis Erickson hadn't run a fake punt in eight seasons. I think it's a complete 180 with this staff. They line us specialists up at running back during the W-drill during the spring season, and me, I'll take any chance I can get to lower my shoulder down into somebody. So if you got out there and make an effort to make the coaches see that you're not just somebody who drops and kicks the ball, it makes them comfortable as far as being able to not just go out there and punt. They have it in the back of their mind that this kid's an athlete, he can throw, he can run, he's not scared to do this, he's not scared to do that. It opens up the possibility of explosive plays, and it's plays like that that can be a real game-changer.
BD: Being a specialist, do you ever find it difficult to stay involved with the flow of a game?
JH: If you ask the coaching staff or the strength staff about me, they'll tell you that I'm full of energy and sometimes I can get distracted, but I feel that when it comes down to game time, I'm locked in, I'm zoned in 100%. The best thing about that now, is that I'm surrounded by guys who are the exact same way. If somebody is getting a little out of line or distracted, they have their buddies, their brothers, to kick them back into line. Sometimes during a game, it's easy to get distracted if you go a whole quarter or a half without punting the football, so I like to keep myself occupied. I won't really do a whole lot of practice during the game. If I get myself into a comfort zone, I know I can trust myself to go out there and catch it, drop it and kick it just like I will in practice.
BD: One of the big changes for you this year is a new long snapper, with Easton Wahlstrom coming in. How has that transition been going for you?
JH: Easton Wahlstrom went to the same high school as I did. I never had the chance to work with him because we're a bit apart as far as age difference goes, but my high school coach, Tony Tabor, who I still have a lot of contact with, told me that the kid has a cannon. I kinda shrugged it off, thinking as long as he's a D-I long snapper, he's gotta scholarship, he'll be alright. The kid got here and started whipping the ball back to me at speeds I wasn't used to, which was a refreshing change. It was a little rough getting used to, but he, just like everyone else in the program, has worked his tail off this summer. He's come a long, long way with massive amounts of improvement. I'm very confident that he's going to be able to get the job done this year.
BD: You've been one of the most candid and entertaining players on Twitter, and it's earned you a place as one of the more popular players on the team. As a Division I athlete, what's your take on the social media platform and the benefits and risks it presents?
JH: I would consider myself to be pretty observant. I pay attention to what goes on, to what people do, to what people do to get themselves in trouble, especially. I'm more or less about making people laugh. Sometimes people will take what I say out of context. Another thing that I can pride myself on is the fact that typically, I don't really care what people think. I'm a very opinionated person. It's a blessing and a curse. I speak my mind, and those who matter don't mind, and those who mind don't matter. I think a lot of the times, I'm just misunderstood. Take 99% of the things I say and put it in a joking manner, it makes a whole lot more sense. I just like to keep people laughing, and clearly, I like to talk. As far as social media goes, I won't be doing a whole lot of that during the season.
BD: Coach Graham has that no tweeting rule during the season, right?
JH: I'm not sure how that's going to work, but either way, all these guys are very compliant. They're not going to defy what the coaches want. They're bough in, just like the coaches are, just like everyone around here is. If it's a simple demand, like no tweeting or Facebooking during the season, it shouldn't be a problem.
BD: There's been a lot of talk in the last few months about the situation of student-athletes, some propose paying the players and so on. What changes, if any, do you think should be made by the NCAA and the universities regarding this?
JH: Personally, I don't think we have a tougher situation than anyone else does. I think, if anything, we're blessed. Guys like us, we have a skill, and a lot of people take advantage of that, and they don't realize that until they don't have it anymore. Personally, I think this is a time in my life where I have to take advantage of everything that I've been blessed with. I'm here to get an education. I'm here to get my degree. Anything else, NFL prospective type stuff, that's just a byproduct of me being here getting an education and setting myself up for the rest of my life. If I end up going to the NFL, I end up going to the NFL. I don't think student-athletes need to be compensated any more than they already are. I get by. I think money burns holes in my pockets, so if I can get by with what they give us, anyone can get by.
BD: How good can this 2012 team be?
JH: Everybody is going to say, when you ask a question like that, "Oh, we're going to be the best team in the country." Some people mean it, some people don't. I don't have a problem looking anyone in the eye, and saying with the amount of talent we have on the team, with the amount of heart, with the amount of determination, with the coaching staff we have, with the kitchen crew upstairs, with the medical staff downstairs, with everyone involved with this program, we can take it all the way. It's not just the players, it's you guys, it's the media. We're the underdogs this season, which, personally, I love. I think it's awesome. I look at teams like the 2007 New York Giants. They weren't picked to do anything. They limped into the playoffs and they went the whole way. Teams don't need to be perfect, and we're not a perfect team by any means. We can improve every day. I honestly, 100% believe that if there is any year that ASU is going to do it, it's this year. 100%.
BD: How do you personally define "Speaking Victory"?
JH: It's a collection of things. Like what I just went over about the whole program. It's not just when you're here. It's not just walking into the building without a hat on, or without earrings in, or with a shirt on. It's giving back to the community. It's doing interviews when you don't want to do interviews when you're upset. Waking up at 5:30 in the morning to come to a two and a half hour workout that sometimes you're not going to want to do, at all. I don't know who wakes up in the morning and goes "You know what, it's 5:30 in the morning and I want to go squat 400 pounds." It's amazing to me that over the last seven months, that they can turn a mindset around as completely as they have. It's unbelievable. I remember the first time he said "Speaking Victory" in his introduction interview. It started trending on Twitter five minutes after he said it. It's still there. That's the thing about this staff, that what they say, it sticks. It doesn't fade into the background. It's a collective effort, and like I said, if ASU's going do it, it's this year. I'm really, really excited to get it started. It's 33 days away (now 31). I keep a countdown on my phone. We've got clocks downstairs in the weight room. I can't wait. I can't wait to hit the ground running.
BD: What is the one X-factor that the Sun Devils need in order to succeed in 2012?
JH: Gotta be the punters and kickers...I'm just kidding. To me, it's the position that demands the most, and that's the quarterback. That's always what it is. You need a leader, you need an athlete, you need someone who can get the job done, but you also need a humble individual. At the end of camp, I think people will have a much better idea as far as the direction that the quarterback situation is going to go, but I'm the last person you want to ask about that, because I have no idea. At the quarterback position, all of those guys are unique. They all have something different to offer. It's a combination of things. Quarterback is very important, obviously. But you look at guys like Cam Marshall, and Brandon Magee, that defensive line and that refrigerator we brought in from junior college (Mike Pennel). I got to play with him, that kid is an animal. I'm sitting here, going over all these people, and it makes me realize that we got all the pieces. We just have to put the puzzle together. Gotta win. W's. 12-0. Playoff system, bowls, wherever we're going this year. A Rose Bowl. That's what I want. That's what everyone wants.
Previous interviews in our "12 in '12" series: QB Michael Eubank, K Alex Garoutte, RB James Morrison, C Kody Koebensky, CB Deveron Carr, QB Mike Bercovici, Devilbacker Carl Bradford, S Keelan Johnson, LB Brandon Magee, Safety Alden Darby