Game Day

Buschini’s obsession has helped former walk-on make his mark for Griz

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Brian Buschini has more surprises in his arsenal of punts than a magician has in his top hat.

There’s the hanging sky ball, the right-to-left curler, the skittering end-over-end roller and the one named after…a fruit?

“I worked on this watermelon punt,” Buschini said. “I haven’t pulled it out in a game yet, but essentially you hold the ball sideways and it’ll just curve out of bounds like at the 5, 10-yard line, like right in there. This curve, almost like a watermelon.”

And then, as though realizing how ridiculous that sounds — “I don’t know why we call it that.”

That’s probably the only thing Buschini doesn’t know about punting.

Ask Montana’s redshirt freshman specialist about his craft, and within two minutes he’ll break into digressions about technique, foreign dispatches from a world where the difference between stepping four yards and three yards with his plant foot is more than crucial — it’s everything.

That laser focus on getting things right has paid off for Buschini. He walked on at Montana from Helena Capital in 2019. Two years later, he’s a field-flipping weapon for the No. 4-ranked Grizzlies as Montana heads to Eastern Washington for a Top 10, nationally televised showdown on Saturday night.

Through three games, Buschini is averaging 46.8 yards per punt, fourth in the Big Sky Conference. Nearly half of his punts (seven out of 15) have been downed inside the 20, and nearly as many (six out of 15) have traveled at least 50 yards.

Aside from his big leg, his varied array of techniques and pinpoint accuracy have helped the Grizzlies limit returns by confusing returners, pinning them against the sideline, and giving the coverage unit time to get down the field.

Montana’s net punting average, which takes returns into consideration, is second in the Big Sky at 45.2 yards, narrowly behind leader Idaho State. The Bengals, the Griz and the Sacramento State Hornets are the only teams averaging above 40 yards in that category.

“It’s sure nice to have a punter and a punt coverage unit that can flip the field for you,” Bobby Hauck said after the Grizzlies’ win over Cal Poly.

The Grizzlies have given up just four punt return yards all season — nine to Washington’s All-American Trent McDuffie in the season opener and negative-five to everybody else. McDuffie’s yardage came on Buschini’s second punt of the game, a kick he admittedly “mishit.” On each of his other six punts that game, McDuffie didn’t even try a return.

Montana punter Brian Buschini kicking off vs. Cal Poly in 2021/by Brooks Nuanez

The right-footed Buschini can punt with his entire body shape showing that he’s going to kick to the right, only to drop the ball to the inside of his foot and have it veer off to the left. Or vice versa. Or just hang it up so high that the entire Montana coverage unit will be encircling the returner by the time it comes down, like hyenas congregating around a dead zebra.

“That’s all we do, is directional,” says Mike McCabe, who owns a company called One On One Kicking and coaches over 20 NFL punters, including L.A. Rams All-Pro Johnny Hekker. “Try to get it as close as we can to the sidelines, or to two yards out of bounds. Hug that sideline as much as possible to cut the running game out of any return.”

Buschini already had an affinity for working on his technique when he committed to the Griz in 2018. Back then, it was a necessity for a kid who didn’t start punting until his sophomore year at Helena Capital.

Brian Buschini punting for Helena Capital.

“I actually taught myself how to punt off of YouTube videos and stuff,” Buschini told Skyline Sports shortly after he committed to the Griz. “I just tried to imitate what the guys did on the videos I watched. I practiced a ton. I’d go out in my yard for four or five hours at a time, just hitting punts around.”

As Buschini discovered, while every high school football coach in the country can teach the fundamentals of blocking and tackling or how to run an out route, very few can show their players how to kick a ball properly.

Coaches like McCabe filled the void. Academies like his One On One Kicking or Chris Sailer’s self-branded kicking school promise that they have the secrets that kickers like Buschini are looking for, and can help them get recruited to boot.

Buschini started going to One On One camps when he was a rising senior in high school, working first with Matt Thompson, a former assistant at the University of Colorado.

“He wasn’t the punter that he is now, but you could see the talent level he had, you can see the drive that he had,” Thompson said. “You could see that he was going to put in the work ethic that is needed to be great.”

That progress accelerated when Buschini got to college, and even more so because of the lost 2020 fall season. Skyline Sports has written about how the extended pandemic offseason helped players at both Montana and Montana State get bigger and stronger.

Buschini did that too — he’s currently listed at 219 pounds, up from 191 when he first got to campus in 2019 — but he also had more time to work on his technique.

Buschini’s training sessions aren’t just dragging a bag of balls to a field and kicking them around. He’s got a list of drills that sound like arcane rituals and that he follows strictly. Half-step explosion. Second-step float. One-step punts. One-and-a-half-step punts.

“I got a lot of extra work in that would have been taken up by the season,” Buschini said. “I felt like I hit the ball OK in the spring, and I knew this summer I wanted to work on a few things. … I need to work on my sky punts a little more, and you can’t have the ball getting down at the 13 when you can get it down to the 5, so there’s a lot of things I definitely need to work on that a lot of people don’t really see.”

Over the summer, he visited McCabe’s home base in Birmingham, Alabama, to train with the punting guru and several of his more accomplished clients, including Hekker.

McCabe put a soccer goal six yards in front of Buschini and had him kick over it, the latest training aid in his constant battle to reduce his stride length.

“If you don’t explode up and over that cage drill, it’s coming back in your face,” McCabe said. “In other words, that’d be like the shield (blockers) getting blown up, you know, with the defense coming in.”

“I should be planting about three yards to my left foot, and I’m at four right now,” Buschini said. “But in the spring I was at five, so we’re on the way there.”

Buschini’s startling progress meant Montana’s coaches felt comfortable riding with the more-or-less untested freshman at punter going into the 2021 season — unlike at kicker, where the Griz brought in Arizona State transfer Kevin Macias late in fall camp.

Buschini has thus far rewarded that faith. The best part is he’s just a freshman, with plenty more years to keep improving — and keep learning.

He’s been watching clips of Baltimore Ravens punter Sam Koch, who’s generally considered to have the deepest “golf bag” of punts in the NFL.

“He has hooks, boomerangs, a knuckleball,” Buschini said. “Returners don’t want to catch those punts, all those weird-looking ones. … So I’m continuing to work on that, probably work on them next summer, because being in mid-season, you only want to change so much. And I’m just really excited for the future, because there’s so much more for me to work on, as well as getting more consistent with what I’m at right now.”

Photos by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.

About Andrew Houghton

Andrew Houghton grew up in Washington, DC. He graduated from the University of Montana journalism school in December 2015 and spent time working on the sports desk at the Daily Tribune News in Cartersville, Georgia, before moving back to Missoula and becoming a part of Skyline Sports in early 2018.

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