One quarterback may have better receivers than another. One tailback may have better blockers than another. One receiver may have inflated stats because he plays in a pass-happy offense.
Of all the positions on a football team, though, the punter might be the hardest one to rate against his peers. That's because there are so many variables involved that his statistics are virtually meaningless. For instance:
Punter A “pooches” the ball 35 yards and out of bounds at the opponent's 10-yard line. In the identical situation Punter B booms the ball 45 yards and into the end zone, giving the opponent the ball on the 20. Punter B gets 10 yards added to his individual total, even though he cost his team 10 yards of field position.
Punter A, mindful of how dangerous the opposing return man is, goes for hang time instead of distance and boots a 38-yard punt that is fair-caught. Punter B booms a 50-yard line drive that is returned 30 yards. Punter B gets credit for those 12 extra yards, even though the opposing team is now 18 yards closer to the goal line.
Relying on net punting statistics doesn't help a whole lot, since a punter whose team excels in coverage has a huge advantage over a punter whose team is awful in coverage.
And how do you compare a punter who has to kick 10 times per game for a bad team with a punter who has to kick just two times per game for a very good team?
I guess I've made enough excuses, so I'll proceed with my rankings of the best punters in the Phillip Fulmer era (1992-present) of Tennessee football:
1. Dustin Colquitt (2001-04): A four-year starter, he was a two-time finalist and one-time semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award as the NCAA's premier punter. The Knoxville native – son of former Vol Craig Colquitt – got outstanding hang time but still averaged 42.6 yards per kick for his Vol career. He also excelled at directional punting and pooch-kicking, which is why the Kansas City Chiefs invested a third-round draft pick in him in 2005.
2. Tom Hutton (1991-94): Experts say that left-footed kickers such as Hutton put a different spin on the ball that makes it more difficult to field. I'll have to take their word on that one, since I don't know what it's like to field a punt from a left-footed kicker. What I do know is that the Memphis native averaged 40.7 yards per punt for his UT career and went on to spend five solid years in the NFL.
3. Dave Leaverton (1998-2000): After winning and then losing the first-team job as a freshman in '97, he rebuilt his shattered ego and bounced back to enjoy a quality career. The lanky Texan averaged 40.6 yards per punt for his career and served as a team captain as a senior.
4. Chris Hogue (1997): Another Memphian, Hogue was a senior walk-on who wrested the top job away from Leaverton a few games into the '97 season and kept it by averaging a credible 39.4 yards per punt. He saved his best for last, averaging 52.3 yards per punt – third-best single-game mark in school history – vs. Nebraska in the '98 Orange Bowl Game.
5. Larry Binion (1995-96): A junior college transfer, Binion averaged a pedestrian 38.1 yards per kick in his two years as the No. 1 punter.