| The Detroit News
With a rebuild on the horizon, it’s worth exploring the building blocks the Detroit Lions have in place as the team prepares for its season finale on Sunday. Rookie running back D’Andre Swift sure looks like a keeper, as do tight end T.J. Hockenson and center Frank Ragnow, who each earned their first Pro Bowl selections recently.
But only one Lions player is on the verge of definitively rewriting the franchise record books this season: punter Jack Fox.
Seemingly coming out of nowhere after a brief stint on the team’s practice squad as a rookie one year ago, Fox is on the cusp of upending Sam Martin’s 2016 marks for both gross (48.5 yards) and net punting (44.2). Fox has been so good in 2020 that he’ll likely finish with a top-three all-time mark in net punting, assuming he can maintain his current 44.9-yard average through Sunday. Fox’s gross average is 49.1.
“I think I’ve talked to you guys about it before, net punting, it’s my favorite stat for punting just because it’s a team stat,” Fox said. “I think everybody on our punt unit will be really proud of themselves and know that they played a part in holding a franchise record. I think that’s so cool, and yeah, that’s definitely something that I’m excited to compete for.”
But Fox had a freakishly strong leg, long before arriving in Detroit. Playing soccer as a child, that leg strength proved problematic in practice, according to Fox’s dad, Pat.
“He had the strongest leg I’ve ever seen on a kid,” Pat Fox said. “I’ve coached a lot of kids, I’ve coached football, a little soccer here and there, but in practice, we had to pull our goalie out of there because he would hurt the goalie every time he shot.”
Pat also coached his son in football, where Jack, as a sixth grader, played on the seventh grade team. A top-tier athlete in high school, Jack would go to to be the starting quarterback at Ladue Horton Watkins High School, just outside St. Louis. He also was an all-conference catcher for the school’s baseball team, batting well north of .400 his senior year.
But that leg was going to be his ticket to playing sports at the next level.
Jack quit soccer in sixth grade in favor of football. He wanted to play quarterback, first and foremost, but with his obvious kicking abilities, he handled the team’s punting duties, as well. Still, it wasn’t something he practiced often.
Pat, at the very least, could provide the basics.
A decent athlete in his own right, Pat played football for Lake Forest College, a Division III school located a half-hour north of Chicago. A defensive back, he’s still got his name in the school record books with a three-interception performance against Lawrence (Wis.) in 1983.
But here’s the kicker — no pun intended — Pat also punted at the school.
He’ll be the first to tell you he wasn’t any good, but like Jack in high school, Pat did it because he was the best option the team had. And speaking of records, Pat still holds the family record with a 78-yard blast against the University of Chicago. He can thank Lake Michigan for the assist with that one.
“It was at the University of Chicago, very windy game, and I got this thing up in the air and it just kept going,” Pat said. “You know, Division III punt returners aren’t very good, so when the ball came down, he couldn’t catch it. It went right by him and rolled. One of those deals, right? In the same game, I had a 7-yard punt. I almost caught it. It was just one of those games. I ended up with something like a 35-yard average with five punts in that game after hitting an 80-yarder.”
But even with his father as a mentor, and some more-detailed tutoring through Kohl’s Kicking Camps during his high school years, Jack had been able to coast by on his physical gifts more than a fundamental understanding of the craft through his junior season at Rice.
That was enough to earn him Second-Team Conference USA honors that year, but certainly not good enough to pursue punting professionally. Thankfully for Jack, that’s when Pete Lembo entered the picture.
An accomplished small program head coach, Lembo racked up a 112-65 record during stints at Lehigh, Elon and Ball State before resigning from the latter position to, as he puts it, pursue a master’s education in coaching.
Wanting to work at a higher level of the college game, he took a special teams coordinator position with the University of Maryland in the Big Ten. An offensive lineman during his playing days, Lembo had gained an understanding for the value of special teams while working as a head coach.
“I learned pretty quickly that in order to be a good CEO, it was going to be very difficult to stay intimately involved in the offense, and so I was looking for ways to stay connected with all the players on the team and figured out pretty quickly that special teams was going to give me a chance to to stay connected with the guys on defense, the guys on offense, obviously the specialists,” Lembo said. “That’s really the core of everything you’re doing in terms of teaching football, teaching the fundamentals of the game.”
Using ESPN’s special teams efficiency metric, you can quickly understand how good Lembo is at his job. He took a group that finished 73rd in 2015 to 17th in 2016 and 11th in 2017.
Lembo, who didn’t want to get into the specifics about why he left Maryland, took the job at Rice in 2018, ahead of Fox’s senior year. Despite those aforementioned all-conference honors, the school’s special teams were far from special a year earlier, ranking 114th via ESPN’s metric.
“One of the things that I tell the specialists and I told the group at Rice, I said, you’re going to get more attention than you ever had,” Lembo said. “And that’s a good thing and a bad thing. The good thing is that, you know, you’re gonna get a lot more attention. The bad thing is that you’re going to be treated like any other position group in the building. We’re going to have the same time spent together and same expectations and standards, in terms of toughness and work ethic, as the linebacker group or the tight end group or any other group.
“And one thing I could tell about Jack from day one was that he was hungry for that he wanted to be critiqued, he wanted to be challenged, he wanted to be developed, he wanted to watch film,” Lembo continued. “He was a quarterback and really just a good athlete growing up that became a specialist later in his life. So he really had that mindset.”
Amusingly, Lembo forced all specialists, Fox included, to perform weekly tackling drills. But that stuff has a funny way of paying off. Against North Texas that season, Fox recovered a fumble on a kickoff because he was in the proper position to make that play.
And that skill has ported over to the pros. It’s easy to forget now, but in the season opener against the Chicago Bears this season, Fox prevented a touchdown by bringing down Cordarrelle Patterson, one of the best kick returners in NFL history, on a kickoff.
Big call from Lions
Lembo acknowledges he’s not a kicking guru, but he pushed Fox to understand the importance of the placement of his punts, playing to the strengths of the team’s coverage units. The power was already there, it was about harnessing it. That coaching clicked.
Fox not only improved his gross average by more than a yard, he was one of the best at the country pinning opponents deep in their own territory. The team, meanwhile, climbed nearly 100 spots in those special team efficiency rankings during Lembo’s lone season at the school.
Fox, a captain that year, was so good, he ended up being named team MVP at season’s end.
Still, there are only 32 punting jobs in the NFL, and only a couple open competitions each year. Fox’s senior success was enough to his foot in the door, with a pair of practice squad stints in Kansas City in 2019, but it was unclear whether he’d ever win a job.
Then Detroit called.
Sam Martin, the team’s longtime punter, was banged up down the stretch and on an expiring contract. The Lions saw an opportunity to add not only insurance, in case Martin couldn’t play, but also evaluate a potential replacement.
Fox worked out with several other punters and was uncharacteristically optimistic after the tryout, according to his father.
“Getting let go again by Kansas City kind of deflated him a little bit,” Pat Fox said. “Kind of like, ‘What do I do now?’ Not long after that, Detroit called, just for a tryout. I think there were four or five other punters trying out and I’ve got to tell you, when he came back after that tryout, he was kind of jazzed.
“He doesn’t get that way,” Pat continued. “He’s a very calm guy. He never really tells you how things went. This time he came back and he said, ‘They seem to like me. I punted pretty well, my hang time was really good,’ and those details are just not something Jack usually talks about. I knew right then there was an opportunity.”
The Lions signed Fox to their practice squad in early December. He wasn’t needed down the stretch, but quickly inked a futures deal with the team at season’s end.
In training camp, all he had to do was fend off the challenge of undrafted rookie Arryn Siposs. The coaching staff continually declared the competition razor thin, but those who had the opportunity to watch closely during those practices saw that Fox was a tier above and earned the job.
And with further refinement of Lembo’s teaching by special teams coach Brayden Coombs and Marquice Williams, Fox’s game was ready to take off.
Four months later, he’s now viewed as one of the best in the NFL. He earned special teams player of the month in September, was named a Pro Bowler last month and has those franchise record’s in his grasp.
“It is it is remarkable,” Lembo said. “It’s a great success story. And I’m proud to be just a little part of it. You know, it’s just for both of us, I feel like it was the right place the right time.”
Vikings at Lions
Kickoff: 1 p.m., Sunday, Ford Field, Detroit
TV/radio: Fox/760 AM
Records: Vikings 6-9; Lions 5-10
Line: Vikings by 6.5