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Former Wildcat Masthay playing major role in Packers' Super Bowl run

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Masthay.jpgNormal punters receive significant attention only when they fail to do their jobs. Droves of media members typically wait for punters at their lockers after a shanked punt in a big moment or a low kick directly to a dangerous return man that results in a back-breaking touchdown.

Tim Masthay is no normal punter.

By the end of his stellar career with the Kentucky Wildcats, Masthay was well known to fans for his booming punts that so often flipped field position. Now in his rookie year with the Super Bowl-bound Green Bay Packers, Masthay is again being talked about for all the right reasons.

In an NFC Championship game to remember against the rival Chicago Bears, Masthay and the Packers punt team faced about as challenging a set of circumstances as a special-teams unit can imagine. Facing record-setting return man Devin Hester, Masthay had to deal with the frigid Windy City weather on a playing surface known to many as the worst in the NFL.

"It is about as challenging of an environment for a punter than you can go into," Masthay said.

Masthay, though, was up to the task. Called on to punt eight times in Green Bay's 21-14 victory, not only did the former Wildcat and Green Bay's punt unit hold Hester (whom Masthay called "probably the greatest punt returner in the history of the NFL") to just 16 yards on three returns, he also pinned the Bears offense inside its own 20 yard-line five times. 

Some national media members wondered through the Twitter-verse whether a punter could be MVP, but all agreed that if one could, Masthay may have been it in the NFC Championship game. 

Masthay worked in concert with his protection and coverage unit and was quick to deflect praise to his teammates.

"I think it's a credit to the whole punt team because, first of all, they have to protect and our snapper Brett Goode has to snap the ball well," Masthay said. "Then, even if I'm punting the ball well, if we don't get off blocks and cover well it doesn't necessarily work out and vice versa. Everything had to be working in conjunction and we were able to do that."

The Packers' game plan against Hester and the Bears stellar special teams was simple.

"We were trying to hit the ball deep and on the sideline and then pin them deep any time we had a chance to," Masthay said.

Easier said than done.

In just his third game with the Packers, Masthay received an initiation into just how difficult that can be. Going up against that same Bears team on that same Soldier Field surface, Masthay punted the ball three times for an average of 50 yards a kick. 

However, each of the punts gave the eternally dangerous Hester a chance to return, and return one to the house he did. Hester had 93 return yards that game, including a 62-yard trip to the end zone that played a major role in Bears' 20-17 win.

The loss to Chicago was the lowlight of a difficult start to his first season in the NFL.

"My production wasn't as good at the beginning of the season and I just kept working, tried to stay on an even keel through it," Masthay said. "Coaches and teammates helped me a lot through that and then I was able to get the ball rolling. I learned a little bit more how to be productive and haven't looked back since."

That episode was not the first bit of adversity Masthay has faced in his professional career.

Masthay was signed by the Indianapolis Colts to compete for a spot on the roster after his graduating from UK in 2009. The Colts ended up keeping Pat McAfee on the roster and waiving Masthay. It was a setback, but a setback that Masthay answered with hard work.

Masthay1.jpeg"My wife and I were living down in Lexington while I was a free agent and I was actually tutoring at (UK's Center for Academic and Tutorial Services) for a short period of time," Masthay said. "I was just training at one of the local gyms and little bit at UK. Really it was continuing to work on my fundamentals and becoming more consistent."

As UK's punter, Masthay had a reputation for his booming punts and kickoffs, but he realized that earning a permanent spot in the NFL would require him to alter his style.

"I learned a different punt from what I used while I was in college," Masthay said. "Now I hit an end over end ball that looks like a kick and I'm able to control it better and get the ball to die for me when it lands. That's the thing that I worked on mostly and continued that during a long offseason with Shawn Slocum (the Packers' special-teams coach)."

Masthay was born in Pennsylvania and attended high school in Murray, Ky., so the fact that he spent his free-agent year in Lexington says something about his feelings toward the city and toward UK.

"I will cherish forever my time at UK, getting to play in the SEC and play for the Wildcats," Masthay said. "It's really a top-notch program from the facilities to the players to the coaches to the way the organization conducts itself."  

Masthay points to the learning he did at UK as a major reason for his burgeoning professional career.

"(UK is) where I learned how to punt," Masthay said. "Coach (Rich) Brooks and coach (Steve) Ortmayer (special teams coach while Masthay was at UK) are really the ones that taught me how to punt."

Masthay's rise to prominence comes during a banner year for former Wildcats in the NFL.  Receiver Stevie Johnson is fresh off of a 1,000 yard season for the Buffalo Bills, while tight end Jacob Tamme stepped in for injured Pro Bowler Dallas Clark and was one of Peyton Manning's most reliable targets with the Colts. 

In addition, linebacker Wesley Woodyard is a consistent contributor for the Denver Broncos, while cornerback Trevard Lindley of the Philadelphia Eagles and John Conner of the New York Jets have bright futures with their teams. 

Masthay said his success and the success of his former teammates is a credit to the growth of UK's program.

"There have been a lot of guys into the league starting my sophomore year and that's a tribute to the recruiting and development of the players at UK by the coaching staff, as well as the commitment of all those players," Masthay said.

Masthay's busy schedule prevents him from following his alma mater as much as he would like to during the season, but he is very confident that the program is in good hands with Joker Phillips, who was the offensive coordinator during his career as a Wildcat.

"I was really excited when Coach Phillips was named coach-in-waiting and then obviously when he took over this past season," Masthay said. "I know that he's a great coach, I know that he really relates to players well and I know that he puts in a lot of hard work. 

"His X-factor is how much he cares about the University of Kentucky football program having played there and having grown up in Kentucky."

The Packers have been in playoff mode the last month, needing to win their final two regular-season games just to earn a wildcard spot, and Masthay has been vital to that run. Even though he has enjoyed his hard-earned success, his attitude at this point is plainly obvious.

"We've got one more game left to win," Masthay said. 

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