Colton Schmidt is sprinting barefoot down the street in his Bakersfield, Calif. neighborhood. He's wearing nothing but shorts. It's roughly 7 a.m. in early September, and immediately after getting out of bed, he began running. He's chasing his opportunity to be a punter in the NFL. Literally chasing. He's sprinting after his mother, who is in her car on the way to work. The Bills had just called him about a tryout minutes earlier, and he needs a ride to the airport.
That story is old now. Schmidt is in his second season with the Bills, and he has come into his own as a punter, ranking in the top five in the league in net punting average (fifth with a net of 42.5 yards per punt, up four yards from 2014). Of his 54 punts, only one has gone for a touchback.
But when talking about his improvement, Schmidt doesn't credit it to any special amount of work he put into his game this past offseason—he worked the same way as he always has—he credits the opportunity he got to play for Buffalo just before Week One of the 2014 season.
Schmidt had been cut after Week Three of the preseason by the San Francisco 49ers for the second straight year. At 23 years old, he feared he had missed another window of opportunity to crack into the league. Then Buffalo called, so he grabbed his suitcase—the same one he had with him in San Francisco—and got on the first plane to the Queen City.
The two reasons he's improved so much, according to his logic, are comfortability and repetition. It's his second year with the organization, and it's his second year taking snaps from long snapper Garrison Sanborn, who has become like family to the California kid-punter. Schmidt and Sanborn, along with kickers Dan Carpenter and Jordan Gay, and other members of the Bills team, spent Thanksgiving together.
"We spend a lot of time together, so it's really a blessing that we get along so well, even if there is an age gap between Jordan and myself, and Dan and Garrison. It's nice for me, being from California [and not having family in the area], to be able to go to their house and hang out," said Schmidt. "That helps a lot."
As far as repetition, Schmidt compares punting to golf. All he can do is go out there every day, swinging that pitching wedge of a right leg as often as possible.
"A lot people know what they're supposed to do as far as their golf swing goes when they're driving the ball. Doing it is a whole other thing. It's simple when you lay it out. Like for us, you need to get the ball out flat and swing up, but it doesn't always work that way. In theory, it seems simple. It's just a matter of finding it. It's like a broken record when you ask anyone what you need to do to be a better punter. You'll always hear back, 'Consistency.' You just have to find your own way how to be consistent," he said.
Schmidt is a creature of habit. Of his more peculiar practices is that he takes the equipment bus to the stadium on game days, arriving more than an hour before almost all of his teammates. When his teammates arrive they joke with him, "How was the sunrise?"
Maybe if there was a bus that arrived earlier than the equipment bus, one that arrived at the stadium in time to watch the sun rise, he might take it. And he'd get to the stadium, and he'd do his 45 minutes of stretching, and he'd get his punts in. He'd make himself comfortable, and he'd go out there and continue to put up top-tier punting numbers in the NFL. There isn't a bus that arrives that early, but Schmidt has already proved that he'll do whatever it takes to last in the NFL, whether that means endless repetitions or sprinting barefoot after a car to catch a plane fresh out of bed.