BETHLEHEM, Pa. - Punter Chas Henry feels more comfortable now than he did last fall, an odd sentiment considering the increased heat.
Henry, 23, signed with the Eagles during training camp last season, and coaches immediately handed the starting job to the undrafted rookie. This year, though, Henry has to actually contend for the position, and the competition is strong.
The Eagles signed Mat McBriar on Wednesday, and the former Dallas Cowboy is expected to take the field at Lehigh University by Wednesday. Coach Andy Reid said the Australian native can't practice with the team until he handles an issue with his work visa.
But when McBriar does arrive, Henry will be punting alongside a two-time Pro Bowl selection. Henry, who beat out other punters in each of his four seasons at the University of Florida, insists that he welcomes the competition - needs it, even.
"If I had a bad punt, there's really nobody out here," he said after Sunday's practice. "It's like, 'Well, I'll let that one go and come up for the next one.' But a guy comes in and hits a 50-yarder after I just shanked one, it kind of gets you moving a little bit."
Based on history, McBriar appears to be the superior punter, but he is recovering from a nerve condition called "drop foot." Last season, a cyst on McBriar's foot impeded a nerve, and he said his accuracy and consistency suffered. Statistically, however, his performance wasn't too much worse. His punting average was 43.8 yards, about 2 yards shy of his career average before last season.
Henry's 42.9-yard average ranked 29th in the NFL, three spots below McBriar's. But this year, he said, he should be able to punt better, and not just because a veteran will push him.
Henry said he needed half the 2011 season to adjust to kicking in the pros. And, yes, he insists, a difference does exist. The blocking is different. So is the speed.
Did either element actually affect how far he could boot the ball, though? No, he said. But . . . well . . . maybe. His leg strength hasn't changed from his senior year at Florida, when he averaged 45.1 yards per punt as an all-American selection. At the beginning of his rookie season, though, Henry didn't feel comfortable with the Eagles' punting formation.
In college, he kicked from a spread formation. His team's front line stood a couple of yards apart from each other, rather than foot to foot, as they do in a traditional punting formation. The Gators also used a second wall with three players standing behind the front line and about 8 yards in front of Henry.
The punter admits this all sounds trivial, but he insisted that the formation affects how well you kick. Because the Eagles' punt unit lines up differently, Henry's teammates protect him differently. And at times last season, he said, watching opponents rush him, he was unsure of whether a teammate would block them before they could block Henry's punt.
As the season wore on, Henry said, he understood the Eagles' formation better. He didn't punt the ball much harder, with his gross average increasing by just about 2 yards in the second half of the season. But he appeared more accurate. Henry pinned opponents inside their own 20-yard line on 33 percent of his punts in the last eight games, compared to 20 percent in the first half.
"If you're more comfortable with something, you're going to do better at it," he said. "It's the same thing for punting. It's the same thing for any position out there. If you really understand the defense or offense as an offensive or defensive player and you're comfortable with it, you usually play a lot better. You don't really think about anything. You just go out there and play."
Henry said he knew that the Eagles would audition another punter this summer. NFL punters form an odd bond, he said, and he noted which veterans were free agents entering training camp. He knows there will always be competition for his seat, he said.
Because his seat should always feel hot, summer or fall.