CEDAR FALLS When the University of Northern Iowa football coaches evaluate the starting punter position, they won't always be looking for the strongest leg. It won't always matter if you boot it inside the 20-yard line with regularity either.
Nope. The most important aspect of the race may come from a stopwatch.
"We are getting our stopwatches on them and finding out who can punt it more consistently with the operation times that we put on it," said Northern Iowa linebackers coach Jeremiah Johnson, who also works heavily with the punters. "The first thing that I am going to look for is the operation time. We are looking to go from the snap to the kick in 2.0 seconds. The guy that most consistently gets to that time, will be in good shape. If we can get the ball punted in 2 seconds, we shouldn't get it blocked."
Northern Iowa freshman Sam Kuhter is one of two punters fighting for the starting spot for this year’s Panther team. According to the coaches, the race is wide open, but Kuhter’s athletic ability may give him a slight edge.
The two guys competing for the starting job and looking to replace four-year starter Kyle Bernard are former South Tama County standout Sam Kuhter and sophomore Logan Biegler, who played at Southeast Polk.
"I am just taking it one punt at a time. If he hits one, I am going to try to hit one better," said the freshman Kuhter, who has only been in Northern Iowa's camp for a week. "That is how I am approaching it. I will just keep improving on what I am doing. If it is not me, then I will keep plugging away and trying to get better. If it is me, then I will work to keep the job as the season goes on."
According to Johnson and UNI coach Mark Farley, the race is dead even. Both though would like to see some separation from someone before school starts up on Aug. 24. And even if someone breaks away from the other, it doesn't guarantee they will keep the spot all season.
"It will be open all season. It is a gut feeling more than anything," Farley said. "We have named a punter before the game and then in warmups changed it. It still comes down to that instinctive moment to who is ready for that role."
It is hard to separate the two punters based on their high school statistics as well.
During his senior season with STC, Kuhter averaged 39 yards per punt over 34 tries. Bieghler, who redshirted two seasons ago, averaged 40.2 yards per punt over 32 tries during his senior campaign at Southeast Polk in 2010. Bieghler also was the field goal kicker, making all 37 of his PAT attempts and 8-of-13 in field goal tries.
"We both have pretty good leg strength otherwise we wouldn't be here," Bieghler said. "We both want the job. We will make each other better and the best man will win.
"Everyone came here to play football. It is one of my dreams. If it comes true, then it comes true."
The advantage Kuhter may have on Bieghler early in camp is the fact that he played quarterback for the Trojans as well. And he also was the starting point guard on the basketball team, the ace pitcher on the baseball squad and a state qualifier in track and field.
"I am looking for athleticism. You may have to field a bad snap," Farley said. "He has been in plenty of situations to where his athletic ability shows through. I want a guy that has already been put in pressure situations before. Sam did that at his high school."
While Johnson admits the job is still wide open for either punter, he acknowledged that Kuhter's athletic ability is not going unnoticed.
"It allows us with his athleticism, if he can win the job, to do a lot of different things with him," said Johnson." Sam is a little bit faster, so if he can win the job, it would open things up for us."
Bernard punted for the Panthers for the past four seasons. Before he arrived on campus, he also played quarterback for his high school team.
Kuhter threw for 874 yards, rushed for 565 and scored a combined 16 touchdowns for the Trojans in 2012. He also had four interceptions on defense.
"I know there are a lot of people back home pulling for me because they think I can do big things here," Kuhter said. "Hopefully I can live up those to expectations. It would be awesome to punt here for four years. To follow in (Bernard's) footsteps would be awesome. He was a pretty good punter."
Kuhter is a third generation Panther as both of his parents and his grandfather all attended the university. That can only help the former Trojan in the race for the starting job.
"If you have been brought up around UNI, you have a sense of what it takes to be successful," said Farley. "UNI was his football team growing up. He was already invested in the team. I think that is what makes him a better fit for this team than some of the other guys we could have brought in."
Both Farley and Johnson had only seen Kuhter in action for two days at the time of the team's annual media day last Wednesday.
Johnson jokingly said he wanted to be able to decide "tomorrow" who wins the job.
But realistically it will likely linger on until at least Aug. 24 when the student-athletes begin fall classes.
"Right now, it's a very close race," Johnson said. "Hopefully, as we push forward, someone can separate themselves and go win the job, but right now it's a really good competition and the kids are working hard at it.
"Before school starts, I want to know. Hopefully by the 24th we'll know. The scrimmage on the 22nd would be an ideal time for us to figure it out."