COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- Punters are usually the first players on the field, either in practice or on game days, and the last to be recognized. For No. 21 Missouri, improvements in the punting game have quietly helped the program ascend from perennial loser to annual contender.
From 1996 to 2007, the Tigers finished in the bottom two in the Big 12 Conference in net punting nine times. Entering the 2008 season, coach Gary Pinkel and his staff decided they'd had enough.
"It was really becoming a thing of frustration for me at the time because we were losing the field position battle every week," Pinkel said. "There was no doubt in any of our minds that something needed to be done to change that."
Pinkel and punting coach Andy Hill checked other programs seeking ways to improve and noticed Wake Forest had enjoyed success with a rugby style, in which the punter rolls out and drives the ball at a lower angle to allow it to bounce for additional yardage.
Hill had seen that style when he was playing in junior college, but never considered coaching it himself until fully understanding the technique.
"When I first saw it I thought the guys doing it were crazy," he said. "It's worked so well for us now and it really gives us a whole new dimension other teams have to prepare for."
The Tigers debuted the rugby punt with Jake Harry in 2008, improving from 11th in the conference to fourth in net yardage. In 2009, Harry led the Big 12 with a 40.5-yard average.
This year, sophomore Trey Barrow and senior Matt Grabner have combined to maintain that success for unbeaten Missouri (5-0, 1-0 Big 12) entering the first road test of the season Saturday at Texas A&M (3-2, 0-1).
In a 26-0 shutout over Colorado last week, both players had punts downed inside the 5 in the first quarter to help establish momentum. Barrow also had a 26-yard run off a fake punt in the second quarter that set up a Missouri touchdown.
"The fake punt was sort of like a dream for me," Barrow said. "I actually returned punts in high school, too, so it felt more natural to me than some people might think."
Both Grabner and Barrow have had little trouble learning the rollout method. Grabner was a standout soccer player in high school and played for Missouri's club team before friends persuaded him to try out for football. Barrow also played basketball and baseball in high school.
Together, their efforts have Missouri ranked second in the Big 12 in net average.
"You want kickers to come in and compete to earn their jobs," Pinkel said. "If you get them out there competing hard and you coach them up well, then the cream will rise the top and you will have success.
"That's what we've been able to do."