Charlie Mendes impressed in his debut season. The redshirt freshmen punter is our 2020 Rice Football Special Teams Player of the Year.
Before former Rice football special teams coordinator Pete Lembo left Houston to take a job with Memphis, he helped secure a commitment from punter Charlie Mendes. The California native was a member of the 2019 recruiting class who elected to come to South Main even though Lembo had moved on. That decision proved fortuitous for the Owls.
Mendes didn’t play a snap during his freshman year. His big leg caught an occasional eye in practice, but the Owls didn’t have need for the newcomer just yet. His time would come, though. After a year of waiting and learning, it was Mendes’ job to lose this spring. Not only did he keep the job, he put together an impressive season. Despite all the challenges that came with the bumpy road the Owls were forced to take, Mendes was steadfast.
When Mendes first stepped foot onto the turf at Rice Stadium in a live game the calendar had already blown past September into late October. Most teams around the country had played several football games, but Rice football was in the midst of their season opener against Middle Tennessee. Mendes took the snap and blasted a 58-yard bomb. Welcome to college, kid.
From that point onward, Mendes has been a fixture on Rice special teams. He averaged 42.8 yards per punt with a long of 59-yards. For those that don’t eat, sleep, and breathe punting statistics, the Owls’ redshirt freshmen punter had a good year. Perhaps not a Ray Guy Award-caliber season, but a surefooted debut in the midst of a season that was anything but normal.
Before the year began, special teams coordinator Drew Svoboda liked what he’d seen from the Owls’ new punter. “He’s got long levers,” he said, “He’s got great biomechanics to punt.” The 58-yarder out of the gate backed up those initial assertions. It also kept any competition from incoming transfer Collin Riccitelli at bay.
Most football fans don’t pay much attention to the punter unless there’s a misstep in a crucial moment. But the reliable foot of Mendes may have gone further under the radar than usual because of the bevy of riches the Owls’ have had at the punter position in recent years.
One of Mendes’ predecessors, Jack Fox, is a Pro Bowl punter in the NFL this season. After taking a redshirt season of his own following a stellar college campaign, Fox continues to wow with his leg. Following Fox at Rice was the tandem of Chris Barnes and Adam Nunez who pulled off one of the more spectacular shared punting seasons in recent memory, splitting the long distance and short-range duties.
And then there’s Mendes, who took over following that lengthy list of successful punting seasons and didn’t miss a beat.
On a per punt basis, Mendes put 42.9 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line this year. Fox averaged 38 percent such punts during his three-year Rice career. Mendes put one of 21 punts into the endzone for a touchback. Nunez and Barnes had a touchback apiece in 2019. Fox averaged one touchback on roughly every 10 tries, twice the rate of Mendes.
As good as Rice has been on special teams in three years under head coach Mike Bloomgren, it hasn’t been nearly as smooth of a ride at any other facet of the third phase. Rice muffed punts in three consecutive games this year. Place kicking was good, albeit with a few notable, painful bad bounces. The Owls’ only return touchdown was called back via penalty. But punting, punting was never a problem. Because of Mendes.
Which brought to mind another conversation with Svoboda following spring practice. “When you’re back there punting in practice,” Svoboda said of Mendes, “a hundred guys seem to be staring at every punt, so it’s pretty easy to gain or lose credibility with your teammates pretty quick as a specialist. He rose to the challenge.”
Both in practice and when the lights turned on, Mendes delivered, again and again. He was named to the Conference USA All-Freshman team for his efforts. If the bar was high, Mendes held it there. The latest in a growing lineage of punters, he’ll have an opportunity to further engrave his place on the list in seasons to come.