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Ben Frederickson is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can follow him on Twitter (Ben_Fred), Instagram (benfredpd) and Facebook (BenFredPD).

Jack Fox punts

St. Louis native Jack Fox, former quarterback at Ladue, punts in a game for Rice University. The accomplished college punter is hoping to play in the NFL. Photo taken by Eric Espada of Rice Athletics.

That quarterback can punt.

The reaction used to ripple around local high school football stadiums when Ladue drives would stall.

Members of the punt team would trot onto the field. The center would give way to the long snapper. But the quarterback remained.

Then, boom.

When Jack Fox truly squares one up, which is pretty much every time he tries, he senses it before anyone hears it.

“You can tell,” he said this week from Florida.

St. Louis has a chance to send another talented football player into the National Football League. Here’s the kicker: Ladue’s old quarterback has turned into an impressive draft prospect as a punter.

Propelling footballs remarkable distances by foot came naturally to Fox. As a young soccer player, his leg was always stronger than teammates of the same age. His dad, Pat, punted a little bit during his time at Lake Forest College outside of Chicago. The Fox family played catch. Then, when their arms tired, they punted.

Jack’s leg made him the first option for extra points, field goals and punts after he switched to football. Before his hometown Rams shipped out, he became a fan of the always colorful punter Johnny Hekker. But he never really thought of himself as a punter.

“It seemed really boring to me,” he said.

Fox stands 6-foot-2 and weighs 224 pounds. He was a catcher on his high school baseball team. He was a quarterback who passed for nearly 2,000 yards. Punting was something he did, not who he was. Until ...

“My senior year of high school, I had a really good year punting,” Fox said. “I kind of figured out I could probably go somewhere.”

After four years at Rice University, Fox has figured out he might be able to go where every college football player dreams of going, but only a sliver of a microscopic fraction can reach. His right leg might land him in the league. Punting, once a bore, has become his passion.

On Saturday afternoon, Fox will participate in the East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla. The annual showcase for draft prospects includes a week’s worth of practices before Saturday’s game, all held in front of hundreds of NFL scouts and agents. Fox will be one of few at Tropicana Field rooting for three-and-outs. He’s already made a good first impression.

“Rice punter Jack Fox really boomed the ball well in the special teams portion,” read a recent report from the East-West Shrine Game practices posted at WalterFootball.com. “He showed good hang time, distance and placement. A number of evaluators liked what they saw out of Fox.”

They should like it even more when they realize Fox is going to get even better. More on that in a moment.

By the time Fox exhausted his eligibility at Rice, he was a team captain, a semifinalist for the Ray Guy Award (to the nation’s most outstanding punter) and the two-time Conference USA punting leader.

Rice (2-11) had a terrible season. Fox had an excellent one. He averaged a career-best 45.5 yards per punt. He booted 26 punts of 50-plus yards. He pinned 31 punts inside the 20-yard line, and 13 inside the 10. His 3,636 regular-season punting yards set a school record and led the nation.

And then there was his 76-yard punt. Seriously. It came in a loss at North Texas. With the back of his uniform, No. 2, pressed against the back of his own end zone, and with North Texas players fast approaching, Fox ripped off the longest punt by a Rice player since before Fox was born.

“It was kind of a bad snap,” Fox recalled. “It was off to my side. I had no time to think about it.”

It’s no wonder Rice designated Fox for kickoffs, extra points and the really long field goals no one else had a chance of making. He made a 44-yarder against Houston. It was no sweat — unlike tackling.

“I’m really not good at that,” Fox said, laughing. “I think I had two tackles this year. One was against Houston on a kickoff. The guy was running at me. I was the last guy. He was kind of coming up the sideline. I was like, ‘Oh, (bleep), I’ve gotta make a tackle here.’ I geared up for it. I was running hard.”

Then the return man realized Rice’s kickoff man was built like a linebacker.

“He ran out of bounds,” Fox said. “I was like, ‘Thank God, I did not want to hit him.’ They don’t know I’m not a good tackler.”

Well, now they do. But the NFL types should also know this: Remember when we said Fox is going to get better?

He did not work with a full-time special teams coordinator until his senior year coincided with Pete Lembo’s first year in that role at Rice. The season that saw Fox set career bests in every meaningful punting category and earn the award for Conference USA special teams player of the year was the first season he truly studied film and participated in weekly meetings with his fellow special teams players. Imagine what an NFL team could do with his upside.

Fox is under consideration for the NFL combine and multiple kicking showcases. He will participate in a pro day at Rice. If punters are not taken in the draft, and very few are, they can be signed as priority free agents by teams that are looking for upgrades. Sometimes, a punter brought in for depth in training camp winds up dislodging a veteran.

If it helps his case, Fox will show off his arm.

He did complete his lone pass attempt in college, a 17-yard throw for a first down on a fake punt.

“Not bad,” he said. “For a punter.”

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