King has new home, same work ethic

mlough@macon.comFebruary 2, 2014 

punter_king

Oakland Raiders punter Marquette King practices his kicks during a 90-minute session at the Mercer University football field Friday.

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He lives outside of Oakland and has family in Macon, Valdosta and Athens.

But whether it’s with a former college teammate and a new kicking acquaintance on a joyously sunny January Friday or in front of 65,000 or so onlookers in the fall, the football field is still pretty much Marquette King’s home.

He’s now in his mid-20s, but King hardly has changed from his days at Fort Valley State, when not long after a home game was over on a Saturday night, he was back out on the field, working on his craft while teammates and fans ventured off for postgame social excursions.

There remains the megawatt smile, quick laughter, enjoyment of people and almost obsessive work ethic.

Nothing has changed since he went from Rutland to Fort Valley State to his current position, starting punter for the Oakland Raiders. Especially the working part.

“Shoot man, as long as you work hard, or harder than everybody else, then that’s how you separate yourself,” he said. “I want to be able to separate myself and help separate the team. I want the Raiders to have the best special teams in the league, however I can do it.

“I’m going to keep working.”

That philosophy led Oakland to sign King as a free agent on draft day back in the spring of 2012, not long after the event had ended. It led Oakland to believe that it had the replacement for this era’s best punter, Shane Lechler.

And King has made the Raiders look wise for gambling on a punter from a Division II program and historically black college.

King sat out 2012 on injured reserve with a foot injury while Lechler booted in a contract year with his expected replacement on the sidelines, averaging 47.2 (tied for 11th) and 39.0 (21st).

Lechler was too expensive to re-sign, and the Raiders brought in Chris Kluwe as a competitor for King. Kluwe was let go before the season began, and just like that, King was a starting punter in the NFL.

Not that his outlook changed. He didn’t talk of “winning the job” but as being named the starter, well aware that there’s a line of competition for every position in the NFL. But getting that job allowed him to start working on actually becoming an NFL punter.

“OK, now I can kind of, not relax,” King said of the days after Kluwe was let go. “But it’s not the same pressure it was during training camp. Now I can really start focusing on developing my directional, and shoot, man, just try to get better at it, get better at everything.”

He got better.

Best in NFL

King finished 2013 first in the NFL in gross average at 48.9 yards and 12th in net (including returns) at 40.1, topping Lechler in 2012 and 2013 (47.6/fifth and 40.0/tied 14th). And it was a bargain: King makes about $405,000 per year, and Lechler signed a three-year contract for $5.5 million with Houston.

“I’m not unhappy at all, man,” said the son of Audrey and Marquette Sr. and older brother of Georgia junior cheerleader Jasmine. “I want to be a lot better than what I was this year. I know I can be a lot better because I work hard.

“I’ll never get comfortable.”

Thus about a week after traveling cross country, King was working out.

This time, it was on the Mercer University Stadium turf with former FVSU teammate Justin Rosenbaum and returning Mercer starter Tyler Zielenske. While some Mercer women’s lacrosse players went through drills on one side of the field, there were the three kickers, in their own world, snapping to each other, punting, chasing the collection of balls near the end zone and repeating the process.

Rosenbaum and King gave FVSU a powerful kicking punch, Rosenbaum at place-kicker and King at punter, until King graduated and Rosenbaum took over both roles for a season. Rosenbaum holds the program record for longest field goal and averaged 44.3 yards per punt as senior, earning all-conference honors.

“Justin right now is training, training very hard,” King said. “He’s working on getting his shot. He’s got a lot of potential. I feel like he has a chance.”

King is back home for about two weeks, so there’s little doubt that the scene will be repeated on or two more times -- at Mercer and/or FVSU -- because King might be outkicked, but he won’t be outworked.

Pressure is on King, and not just because his job is to sometimes bail out his team.

Longtime Oakland punter and Swainsboro native Ray Guy was elected on Saturday to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and Lechler eventually will face the same possibility, as the NFL’s all-time leader in career punting average, to go with nine All-Pro picks.

Some pretty serious shoes have punted for the Raiders.

“Man, no kidding,” he said. “That’s fine.”

King and Guy have become friends, and the two talked a few days before Saturday’s Hall announcement. Guy sees good things ahead for one of his successors.

“We talked before the (Philadelphia) Eagles game, and he’ll call or text me if he has any questions or wants to chat,” Guy said in a San Francisco Chronicle story. “He’s great. He will be a great asset for the Raiders for years to come. Marquette has a very powerful leg, and he is very natural with great coordination.

“He’s learning that kicking it harder sometimes doesn’t always work out.”

Catching heat

King’s leg strength has never been a question -- it has been a thing of YouTube legend for a few years, in fact, and he was tabbed “Legatron” early on in Oakland -- but placement of punts was. That has improved, just in time for King to undergo heat for the other part of his job: holding on field goals.

He went from holding for the right-footed Rosenbaum to the left-footed Sebastian Janikowski, who found a major comfort zone with Lechler as his holder for more than a decade.

The chemistry and timing weren’t there, and Janikowski had missed more field goals through 11 games as the previous two seasons combined. He told a sideline radio reporter after one miss that the hold wasn’t right, and the kicking problem was major news as blame shifted to King.

Suddenly, one of the nicest players in the league zipped up to the media for a short time, which surprised the media members used to the ebullient King. Janikowski later said that his mechanics were more at fault than he had thought, and things got better.

King returned to normal with the media, but one thing hadn’t changed.

“It can be frustrating at times,” King said. “I’ve gotten to the point where you don’t really pay attention to ... as long as you work hard, you have nothing to worry about. I didn’t worry about anything because I knew I put the work in.

“Even on my days off, I would go to the facility, go on the field, kick and hold. Even though I didn’t have a snapper, I’d just throw the ball up and put it down, do something.”

As of Sunday afternoon, King was still debating about his Sunday night TV viewing plans. After all, his team wasn’t playing. But ex-FVSU teammate Ricardo Lockette is a receiver and special-teams player for Seattle, and King has tremendous respect for the abilities of Denver quarterback Peyton Manning, who throws to another Middle Georgia product, Demaryius Thomas of West Laurens.

On Friday, King was hoping for a tie. As it is, his interest in the Super Bowl is lukewarm until his team is closer to becoming part of it, with his help. Thus, trips home are infrequent.

“My focus is so much on trying to improve and be the best,” he said. “How many people have the opportunity to be around an NFL organization or be in the building? I want to be in there as much as possible and work as hard as I can and help the team out as much as possible.”

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