CLEMSON -- Dawson Zimmerman is a thinking man's man, and when he thought about it that was the problem.
Being a reflective type is helpful when composing short stories for courses related to his English major. Thought is an advantage when composing lyrics for his fledgling rock band, the "Rainbow Bandits."
Analysis is not an effective practice for a punter.
A punter is isolated like a free-throw shooter, "alone in the pasture" as Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney explains, where performance is easily measured, where there is time to for reflection before action.
Before 70,000 fans, it's best not to be self-aware.
It's best not to consider the consequences of a shank when trotting back to receive a snap.
To understand Zimmerman's performance against North Texas when he set a single-game Clemson record with a 50.8 yard net-punting average, one must travel inside his head.
"Being afraid to make a mistake, a don't-shank-it mindset, I kind of had it last year," Zimmerman said. "Emptying my head is really important."
Clemson finished 11th in net punting in the ACC last season (33 yards per punt).
His performance was especially frustrating to Swinney. He saw Zimmerman consistently boom punts in practice, perfect blends of hang time and distance. He saw Zimmerman as a much-needed field-position weapon after the loss of C.J. Spiller.
The 6-2 junior earned a "practice All-American" designation from the Clemson coach this summer.
"I told Dawson we are going to make him practice in his game day uniform to get (performance) to transfer," Swinney said.
Said Zimmerman: "I was ready for that transfer, too."
In Zimmerman's first full season since arriving as Scout.com's No. 2 rated punter from Brookwood High (Ga.) in 2008, he recorded just four 50-plus yard punts in 55 attempts last season.
He averaged 51.5 yards last Saturday.
Swinney is serious about the psychology element.
At Clemson's practices, a manager stands behind the scout team defense wearing a T-shirt that reads "Good ball security wins football games." Running backs are required to deposit the ball with the manager after every carry. The T-shirt used to read "Bad ball security loses football games."
"That's what they are seeing every day," Swinney said. "So we changed that."
Clemson has a sports psychologist, Milt Lowder, who worked with Zimmerman on erasing doubt from his head.
"At least 50 percent of the game is mental if not more," Swinney said. "That's why you see a lot of teams have a performance psychologist. I think that's something that has helped Dawson think about the right things."
Zimmerman wasn't worried about the second-clock in his head. He wasn't frantically worried about getting the punt off. Last season, Zimmerman simply couldn't get out of his head.
Along with Mowder's efforts, Zimmerman credits a conversation with offensive coordinator Billy Napier for improving his mindset.
A few weeks ago, Zimmerman bumped into Napier near the West Zone elevator after the junior punter was "fired up" from a game of ping-pong in the players' lounge.
Napier advised him to channel his ping-pong mentality to the field.
"Death Valley is such a huge environment and it can often be intimidating, but if you treat it like it's a game, like you're up 21-20 in ping pong and I have to get this point ... it's so much easier to deliver," Zimmerman said. "You aren't thinking about 'What if I mess up? What's the impact going to be if I shank this punt?'
On his third punt against North Texas, with Clemson leading 7-0 and pinned near its end zone in the second quarter, Zimmerman relaxed, got out of the head, and sent the ball on a sky-scraping arc flipping the field.
A 79-yard punt -- second longest in school history.
"I just want to punt it, send it a long way," Zimmerman said. "It's definitely a change of mindset from years past."
Now, what of Zimmerman's encore?
"I've been very cautious in my comments about him," Swinney said. "He had a great spring, a great camp."
And now a great first game.
Without thinking about it, can he do it again?
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