Baylor product Sepulveda already paying dividends for Steelers

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers never paid more heavily for a punter than they did Daniel Sepulveda, giving up fourth- and sixth-round picks to get him. So far, they're not disappointed with their investment.

"We put our money where our mouth is with him," Mike Tomlin said, a reference to the new coach's emphasis on special teams. That leg Sepulveda is giving the Steelers is making them look wise with that money, too.

It was only a preseason game, but given that the kicking game is the one aspect of the preseason that most mimics that of the regular season, the Steelers were delighted with Sepulveda's 50-yard average on four punts Saturday against Washington.

The Baylor rookie punter was their standout during a dreary first half of a game the Steelers would win 12-10 on three field goals in the fourth quarter. The Steelers have devoted more time to the kicking game under Tomlin than with any previous coach.

"I think it's great they're putting so much emphasis on special teams," Sepulveda said, referring to the numerous morning practices devoted to them during camp.

The Steelers ended last season convinced that they needed an upgrade at punter, even though the long-reliable Chris Gardocki -- their regular for three seasons -- has never had any of his 1,177 punts blocked.

However, Pittsburgh was only 28th in the league in punting average (41.3) last season, and 19th in net average (36.7 yards).

Sepulveda gives the Steelers some added dimensions that most punters don't have -- namely, a linebacker-like body. At 6-foot-2½ and 229 pounds, he resembles first-round draft pick Lawrence Timmons in size, and Sepulveda outran Timmons during some predraft workouts.

Sepulveda didn't punt in high school, either, becoming a punter at Baylor only after walking on at linebacker, the same position older brother Stephen played there. The younger Sepulveda went on to become the first two-time winner of the Ray Guy award, presented to college football's top punter, averaging 46.5 yards last season.

After the draft, Sepulveda discovered pretty quickly that Pittsburgh is a football-intensive place to be. There, he was reminded constantly of how he hit a 51-yard punt against North Texas several years ago, then went downfield and leveled the punt returner with a big hit.

Sepulveda thought the play was long since forgotten, only to learn numerous Steelers fans had watched it online.

"That's pretty cool, that they're talking about a punter even before they've seen him play," he said.

Sepulveda also has been asked repeatedly about his ability to kick the "Aussie roll" -- a type of punt that, when landing inside a 20, doesn't bound toward the end zone but backspins and remains in play. The idea is to get the ball to rotate backward like a kickoff, rather than spiraling like most punts do, by kicking it on its end.

After watching Cowboys punter Mat McBriar employ the roll, Sepulveda was determined to learn it himself. The kick gets its name from Australian football, where the tactic is heavily used.

"It can be a great kick," Sepulveda said.

Notes: Tomlin declined again Wednesday to reveal his starting offensive line, though one seems to have emerged in camp: LT Marvel Smith, LG Alan Faneca, C Sean Mahan, RG Kendall Simmons and RT Willie Colon. ... QB Ben Roethlisberger said he has confidence in the line, no matter who lines up in front of him. He has not publicly said whether he favors Mahan or Chukky Okobi at center. ... The Steelers haven't drafted a punter as early as they did Sepulveda since taking Craig Colquitt in the third round in 1978.

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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