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Sacco Sez: Billy Van Heusen, Sam Martin and the importance of directional punting


The Denver Broncos will have a new punter this year in Sam Martin, who comes to the Mile High City from Detroit, where he had seven fine seasons for the Lions.

Since entering the NFL as a fifth-round pick for the Lions in 2013, Martin ranks fourth in net punting average (40.9) and gross punting average (46.0) among all punters that have played 100 games over the previous seven seasons. With him leading the way, the Lions' punt unit allowed the fifth fewest return yards (1,612) in that span.

In a recent article by Kyle Newman of The Denver Post, Martin was described as having spent much of camp "throwing darts."

"Directional punting has been my biggest emphasis all offseason and all camp," Martin told Newman.

You can never go wrong with a strong leg and the ability to kick well for direction.

I was talking to Broncos Top 100 Team punter/wide receiver Billy Van Heusen about this, and "Billy Van" (the only way teammates and fans of his era know him) said, "I did not pay too much attention to Detroit while Sam was there, but I have been reading a lot about him now that he is a Bronco.

"Directional kicking is very important," Van Heusen continued. "Distance is very valuable, but there is such a thing as out-kicking your coverage. Just booming the ball into the end zone often is not as good a strategy as trying to pin the other team back and making their offense start deep in their own territory."

Billy Van ought to know.

An undrafted free agent from Maryland who kicked nine seasons for the Broncos (1968-76), Van Heusen was by far the finest athlete ever to punt for the Broncos.

Witness his record.

Of the 48 punters with at least 100 punts from 1968-76, Van Heusen's gross punting average of 41.7 yards per punt over that span ranked seventh overall.

In his nine seasons, he was in pro football's top 10 punters in gross average five times (second in 1968, including the NFL punters, sixth in 1970 and 1971, third in 1973, and ninth in 1974).

But I mentioned that Billy Van was the best athlete we ever had as a punter.

Check this out.

Several times during his career he was a starting wide receiver, and he had 82 career catches for what is still the Broncos record of 20.5 yards per reception. He caught 11 touchdown passes as well.

Van Heusen was a threat to run out of punt formation as well, which he did 13 times for 171 yards, a 13.2 average, including a 66-yard touchdown jaunt on a fake punt against the Houston Oilers.

He also passed five times with two completions in another testament to his versatility.

He has often been compared to Bobby Joe Green, who was a punter and running back for Pittsburgh and Chicago for 14 seasons. But despite being a running back, Green only had nine total carries in his career — fewer carries out of the backfield than Van Heusen had from punt formation!

Van Heusen was delighted to hear that Martin is working on his directional kicking, which was already considered a strength of his in Detroit.

"We used to put those orange cones down on the field at the sidelines, and then a couple of the coaches and I would make friendly bets about how close I could come to the cones," Van Heusen said. "I came pretty darn close most the time, frankly."

During his era, the two best punters against whom Van Heusen competed were Hall of Famer Ray Guy with the Oakland Raiders and Jerrel Wilson (whom many of us feel should be in the Hall as well).

"Jerrel and I were very proud of our ability to put the punt on a dime, so to speak, while Ray sometimes just boomed it into the end zone," Van Heusen noted. "But that Oakland offense and defense were powerful units, so it all came out OK."

Billy Van Heusen was an underrated player in his day, certainly when his talents as a wide receiver were taken into consideration.

It is very difficult to find any full-time punters in the last 50 years who played another position full time, or even part of the time, certainly not well enough to set a franchise record, as Van Heusen did with his 20.5 career yards per catch over nine years.

But Billy Van still takes great pride in his directional punting from 1968-76, and Bronco fans of today now can look forward to Sam Martin carving out his own section of history in the orange and blue.

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