MARQUETTE - With limited minutes dedicated to special teams during daily practices, kickers and punters find themselves with time to kill throughout the season.
Some of that time is spent volunteering on the chain gang during select drills. Other times, kickers and punters take a crack at their counterparts' specialty of booming the pigskin.
Northern Michigan University kicker Rockne Belmonte and graduated punter Garrett Peck were those types of specialists in 2011.
Northern Michigan University senior Rockne Belmonte, a second-team preseason all-American, kicks off during drills inside the Superior Dome on Monday. Belmonte will handle kickoffs, field goals and now punts in 2012. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
That practice - or at times, goofing around - has come in handy this season with Belmonte replacing Peck as the Wildcats' starting punter, in addition to handling kickoffs and being the team's starting placekicker.
"He's the best one," NMU head coach Chris Ostrowsky said of Belmonte in assessing his punters. "He's an all-American preseason kid. He's a hard worker, very smart, very, very talented and the best one."
Belmonte said he worked all summer on punting, but the last time he was officially charged with any punting duties was four years ago in Ypsilanti, before he transferred from Eastern Michigan University to NMU.
Belmonte said the biggest adjustment for him is punting in live drills with blockers in his face.
Handling the snap is also key, said Belmonte, with such a small window separating a high booming kick from a blocked punt that could lead to an easy six points for the opposition.
It happened to Peck against Ashland in Week 4 last season.
"The main thing with that is getting used to handling a snap and then punting," Belmonte said. "The more snaps I get, the more consistent I'll get.
"Handling that ball and getting off in a fast time before getting blocked is the real key."
Last season was Belmonte's first handling kickoff duties in addition to field goals. He averaged 58.2 yards per kick with two touchbacks and four kicks sailing out of bounds.
Opponents averaged 21.1 yards per return, with one taken back for a touchdown by Wayne State in Week 5 in Marquette.
On field goal duties, which Belmonte considers his top priority ahead of kickoffs and punts, the 2012 USA Football News preseason second-team all-American placekicker was 15 of 19 on field goals.
He hit 3 of 5 between 20-29 yards, 2 of 2 from 30-39, 10 of 11 from 40-49 and he missed his lone attempt from long range. That was a 52-yarder that could have tied the game at 21-21 against Michigan Tech in the season finale, forcing overtime in the battle for the Miners Cup.
That FG would have been a career high for Belmonte after he hit a 51-yarder against Ferris State on Oct. 16, 2010, in the Superior Dome. His longest of 2011 was 45 yards at Ferris in Week 7.
Belmonte broke the NMU record for most field goals made in a season with 15 last year. He's 10 shy of tying the career mark of 41 hit by Kyle Marotz between 2002-05.
"I've always been comfortable with distance," Belmonte said. "I'm just really trying to hone in and be perfect this year."
True freshman Jason Seeke out of Cedarburg, Wis., will serve as his backup at all three spots, with a number of walk-ons also working with the veteran Wildcat.
Junior defensive back Brandon Parson, junior wide receiver Christian Jessie, true freshman wide receiver Keon Collier and redshirt freshman receiver Trey Hipke have all rotated in returning punts and kickoffs during training camp.
Joining them on special teams has been a slew of other offensive and defensive starters as well, including senior offensive lineman Jace Daniels of Escanaba, senior linebacker Eddie Knoblock and senior defensive tackle Zach Anderson of Sault Ste. Marie.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.