Sumlin trusts sophomore’s strong leg
It is not just the arm of quarterback Case Keenum, the hands of receiver Patrick Edwards or the tenacity of linebacker Sammy Brown that have led the Cougars to a 3-0 start.
Playing a pivotal role in the field position battle is sophomore punter Richie Leone. He has punted 12 times for an average of 49.7 yards per attempt — the second-best mark in the NCAA. UH is third in the nation in net punting with a mark of 45.17 yards per attempt.
From Roswell, Ga., Leone is the only player on the roster who is from Georgia.
“I have a lot of confidence in Richie,” head coach Kevin Sumlin said. “In recruiting we thought he was one of the best guys out there — he hasn’t proven us wrong. That’s why we nationally recruited for a punter, to come in and use the scholarship. That’s how important of a weapon he is.
“He’s a sophomore, but kind of taken for granted. He’s going to be around 50 yard every time, we have to talk to him about being able to knock the ball down 40, 50 yards down field.”
Leone saw more action than usual in the Cougars’ win at Louisiana Tech, punting seven times for a total of 333 yards.
On his last attempt in the fourth quarter, the offense temporarily stalled in the midst of its 27-point rally. Snapped from the UH 44-yard line, Leone skied the punt more than 60 yards for a touchback.
“The decision to punt the ball with less than six minutes to go and down six wasn’t that hard because how our defense was playing at the time,” Sumlin said. “The momentum changed in that our punter got off a 66-yard punt. I thought it would be somewhere around 50 and get inside the 20 or 10-yard line.
“They stopped counting at the goal line. That ball hit eight yards deep in the end zone, it was probably closer to 70 yards. What do you tell him? ‘Don’t do that?’ We just slapped him on the back, and they started at the 20.”
Leone’s responsibilities were doubled after the Cougars’ kickoff specialist, senior Jordan Mannisto, suffered an early injury in the North Texas game.
“He’s a weapon,” Sumlin said. “A lot of people don’t know, but Jordan Mannisto got hurt on the opening kickoff. So not only did he punt but he ended up kicking off seven times.
“He can also kick field goals but we don’t want him to do all that, he’s just a sophomore. We just ask him to punt and be our emergency kicker if we need him. He’s got that kind of demeanor.”
Given his versatility, Sumlin and his staff are optimistic that Leone will be a staple in the special teams unit beyond this season.
“He’s a big, strong kid, he’s a 6-2 athlete,” Sumlin said. “He has great form. The good news about him is he’s young, he’s only going to get bigger, stronger and better.”