Playing a lot, or not, UL punter Byrns does little wrong
It was halftime of UL’s 77-6 win over Texas Southern back in mid-September, and Rhys Byrns’ mother was worried.
Why hadn’t her son — the Ragin’ Cajuns’ starting punter, the one she’d traveled all the way from Australia to watch play — gotten in the game yet?
Byrns’ aunt and uncle, in town for the only time this season to watch their nephew, wondered the same thing.
“In their lack of familiarity with the rules,” UL head coach Billy Napier said, “they thought something was wrong.”
There was not.
Byrns hadn’t played because UL’s offense was on a roll, scoring a touchdown on each of its full opening-half drives.
He simply was not needed, and in fact wasn't all night, which was a positive for the Cajuns.
But Mandy Byrns, who also was in the United States to see UL’s season-opening loss to Mississippi State at the Superdome and its subsequent home win over Liberty, did not know that.
“She thought Coach wasn’t playing me because I’d done something wrong during the week,” Byrns said. “So I had to explain to her quickly at halftime that it wasn’t something I was doing wrong; the offense was just doing so good.
“It’s been like that a lot this year. The offense has been moving the ball well, and I’m sort of just sitting back and have a good front-row seat to watch the offense.”
In UL’s 17-7 ESPN2-televised loss to Appalachian State last Wednesday night at Cajun Field, however, Byrns was much-needed.
'GLAD WE HAVE HIM'
The case could be the same Thursday night at 3-3 Arkansas State, where the 4-2 Cajuns meet their Sun Belt West Division-rival Red Wolves in an ESPNU-televised game from Jonesboro.
Against the Mountaineers, the sophomore from the seaside resort community of Rye, Australia, performed like someone who has been punting his whole life — not just for his second season, in a foreign land.
Four of Byrns’ six punts went more than 50 yards, including a long of 61.
On the six, he averaged 49.3 yards, frequently flipping the field.
And four of them landed inside the 20-yard line, including one downed at the 1, one that left Appalachian State starting at the 1 and one downed at the 3.
“I’m glad we have him,” UL head coach Billy Napier said.
“His ability in those hang-punt situations, to put the ball down there inside the 10, that was special.”
It even changed some of Napier’s decision-making throughout the night.
“There were a handful of those in that game where we may have went for it (on fourth down) in other games we played in,” Napier said. “But because of the way our defense was playing and the way Rhys was performing and the coverage unit on punt was playing, we chose to punt the ball.
“Certainly Rhys has been a great weapon. We’ve been fortunate that we haven’t had to use him much this year, but he was at his best when we needed him the most. I think he’s that type of competitor and player and teammate.”
PRIDE IN THE JOB
Last season, when he started as a true freshman, Byrns fractured both the ulna and radius bones near his wrist on his first punt during UL’s Cure Bowl game against Tulane.
Yet he gutted things out and finished anyway.
This season, his trait as a trusty teammate was evident when — after winning Sun Belt Special Teams Player of the Week honors for his play against Appalachian State — he used Twitter to individually thank each member of UL’s punt unit.
That includes everyone from his snapper, Paul Boudreaux, to flyers like Percy Butler, Michael Jacquet III and Raymond Calais Jr., and all the rest: T.J. Wisham, Ashton Johnson, Terik Miller, Brenndan Johnson, Nick Ralston, Pearse Migl and Alonzo Brown.
“Without them, there is no punt at all,” Byrns said Monday.
“A lot of people look at the punter and give him a lot of credit, but there’s people down there downing the ball, there’s people protecting so they can’t rush at me and I can take more time. Those guys do an outstanding job. They’ve done it all year.
“So I can’t thank them enough,” he added, “and they deserve more credit than I do, really.”
Yet Napier isn’t shy about crediting Byrns, who came to UL on scholarship without ever having punted in a game before.
“He takes tremendous pride in his job,” the Cajuns coach said of the former Aussie Rules player.
“Rhys is outstanding, and certainly for a true sophomore that’s really in his second year playing American football, he’s made a great transition.”
The move, however, has come with some challenges.
For the first half of last season, Byrns often felt rushed and uncomfortable.
“Now, when I get out there, I can look at the formation they’ve got and know what’s going on,” he said. “I know their returner. I know a lot more about him.
“If he’s rolling right, I know I can kick it back left, and that type of thing, whereas last year I was just looking at (then-snapper) Jackson (Ladner) and just going, ‘Just please hit a good ball.’ I wasn’t very confident at all.”
HE DID WELL
That changed, thanks in large part to film work and countless meetings.
Now, he was able to pick up on videotape that Appalachian State didn’t rush too much on punts, preferring to sit back and guard against a fake.
That prompted UL to script in more "fake" fake formations Wednesday, buying him even more time to work.
When the Mountaineers’ designated rush man came in for one punt, he noticed right away and booted the ball faster.
As for Arkansas State, he said he knows the Red Wolves rush only about 10 percent of the time — but also is quick to say “you never know when” they will.
“I didn’t think there was this much to football, as much as there is,” Byrns said.
“When you’re watching back home, you sort of think they go out there and just call the play and sort of run it.”
Back home in Australia, you also don’t always understand all of rules or why — in at least one case — a punter is even needed.
When Byrns earned his Sun Belt Player of the Week honors, however, there was no confusion whatsoever for mom Mandy, dad Wes or any of the rest of the clan.
It was validation that the kid is doing just fine.
“They don’t really know a whole lot about the sport. They don’t understand it, really,” Byrns said. “So, a lot of the time they don’t really know what’s good and what’s not good. So, it was good for them to see (thanks to the weekly award) that something went good.”