It’s spring practice, when the dust gets knocked off the shoulder pads and players spend a few hours each day running into each other.
And then there are the punters, kickers and long-snappers.
Here’s how it works for the specialists at most schools: There’s conditioning, and everyone does that, despite some protests. Then maybe a special-teams drill or two. Then a whole lot of waiting around. Of any three-hour practice, the specialists might be involved for 15 minutes.
“You’re bored as hell,” former Utah punter and Ray Guy Award winner Tom Hackett said.
Practice for specialists isn’t like practice for everyone else. It has to be a little more creative. There’s rarely a coach barking orders, no scripted routine to ensure each second is accounted for. Instead, the kickers, punters and snappers come up with their own plan. Ideally, there’s some tangential benefit, some small way of refining the skill set that defines a kicker or punter. As important, however, is that it passes the time.
At Texas A&M, where current Ray Guy winner Braden Mann toils, they play punt golf. Start at one goalpost and try to reach the opposite one with a punt, a pass and a dropkick.
At Wyoming, Cooper Rothe, last season’s national leader in field goal percentage, said the Cowboys’ specialists try to show off their more physical side, competing to do more pullups on a ladder that leads to a catwalk in the indoor practice facility. They’ll wager a McDonald’s lunch on the contest to add to the drama.
At Georgia, Rodrigo Blankenship touts a strict regimen, with each little drill having some import to his chosen craft, but even he feels the need to spice things up. After he saw a kick blocked against Missouri last season, the kickers invented a game where they kick against the camera tower — the higher up the ball hits, the more points you get.
“It’s a friendly competition,” Blankenship said, “but Rod always wins.”
To be sure, no one is suggesting the work done by specialists on the practice field is inconsequential. In fact, ask enough guys still toiling on college rosters, and most proclaim every second of their unstructured hours during practice is accounted for, and the competition can get intense even for a round of punt golf. But reality is more complex. Yes, they have a job to do. No, that job probably doesn’t take three hours.
“It is ludicrous in some sense,” said Hackett, who noted that Utah coach Kyle Whittingham would eviscerate any specialists he caught sitting down during practice. “But at the same time, if you just pulled him aside and said, ‘Hey Coach, what do you want us to do for that long?’ I’m sure he’d concede some defeat.”
So here are the best stories of what they end up doing during that time.
‘Like a pitcher on a pitch count’
The obvious question: Why don’t punters and kickers just spend practice kicking?
The answer: It’s a lot harder than you think.
“It’s like a pitcher on a pitch count,” Notre Dame’s Tyler Newsome said. “You’d wear out your arm.”
Not that every coach understands this. It’s the cognitive dissonance that most specialists endure from people who don’t really understand the craft. There’s kicking or there’s nothing.
“Some coaches make them kick the entire time,” Mann said. “Some guys can go play pingpong during practice.”
The truth is, specialists survive somewhere in between. They need to refine their craft, but when it comes to a skill based on muscle memory, it’s also best not to think too much about it. They need to build leg strength, but they also need to be fresh for Saturday. They need to work, but there are limits, too.
“On a snowy day, there’s no chance we’re doing anything,” Hackett said. “We’re trying to use the toilet as many times as possible.”
The art of the trick shot
The trick shot is the ultimate art of the specialist.
It’s rare punters or kickers get to spend too much time basking in social media celebrity status, but when a trick shot goes viral, that’s their moment to shine.
Witness former Virginia Tech punter A.J. Hughes booting a ball over the school’s 110-foot scoreboard.
Watch former Furman kicker Jon Hollingsworth bicycle-kick a field goal or arc one between the uprights from the back goal line.
Furman kicker Jon Hollingsworth puts some fancy footwork into these trick-shot field goals.
Enjoy Indiana’s kicking unit boot double field goals through the uprights.
The secret ingredient to each of these: a camera. Specialists require witnesses.
“There’s a lot of cool stuff that happens, but when we tell everybody about it, they tend to not believe us,” Hackett said.
Mann figures he’s broken a half-dozen lights in Texas A&M’s indoor practice facility, and if he’s being honest, he feels a little bad about the staffers who’ve had to climb the building to retrieve balls stuck on the roof from attempts at getting kicks over the IPF.
Hackett remembers Utah’s multimedia staff coming out to practice with a camera one day to film the specialists. He bragged he could drop-kick a ball through the uprights. Instead, it landed smack in the middle of the crossbar.
“I turned to the camera and said, ‘That’s how it’s done,'” Hackett said.
It became a viral hit, despite the lie.
Rothe once banged back-to-back kicks off the post in practice. Coach Craig Bohl asked if he’d done it on purpose. Rothe didn’t lie, but he assured everyone it was an easy enough skill. So for the rest of practice, the kickers tried to hit the post. None did.
“Football players first”
Specialists take their craft seriously. The problem is that, for most of the game’s history, few others are as concerned about the nuance of drop times and stride lengths.
Virtually no high schools have a kicking coach. College programs often split responsibilities for special teams among other position coaches. Learning is done independently, and practice follows suit. Once the kicking drills are over, the specialists go one way and everyone else — including the coaching staff — goes another.
“So your entire career, through trial and error, you’re trying to figure out what you need to do to get ready,” said former Alabama punter JK Scott, who posits that specialists are among the most mentally tough athletes in sports as a result.
Scott makes a strong case. How many of us could be left to our own devices for three hours without fidgeting with a cell phone or doing a little online shopping? College specialists, meanwhile, are awash in one of the culture’s scarcest resources: time without distractions. And for some reason, they’re derided for it rather than lauded.
“Oftentimes there are stereotypes of kickers or punters that they don’t work as hard,” Newsome said. “We wanted, as a unit, to show we take as much pride in doing everything we can, even though we may not be in front of everybody for 10 to 15 minutes of practice. We had the motto that we’re football players first.”
This is the stigma that weighs on every specialist. Like the new kid in school, they’ve got to find ways to fit in.
Need a defensive back on scout team? They’re in.
Need a cheering section during 7-on-7 drills? Line ’em up.
Need someone to offer a little emotional support to the injured starters roaming the sidelines while the rest of the team practices? Specialists can do that, too.
At Alabama, Scott started using his free time in practice to do Pilates, talking up the results. Now, there are dozens of players on the team doing the same.
Rothe said Wyoming’s specialists get out and push sleds with the linemen.
Newsome hits the gym with tight ends and linebackers routinely, he said. It’s worked, too. At Notre Dame’s pro day this spring, Newsome did 30 reps on the bench press — just one shy of the team’s high.
“We all have our routines, and there’s no telling how much time we spend behind the scenes,” Newsome said. “People don’t see that.”
“Position players think we’re total weirdos”
More than anything, the free time on specialists’ schedules is filled with words. They talk about kicking. They talk about technique. They talk about sports and news and girls and food and movies and the new Drake album and what’s the capital of Idaho and who’s the guy who played the villain in that Batman movie and — seriously, what else is there to talk about?
“That’s one of the reasons I went into the world of media,” said Hackett, who now hosts a sports talk radio show in Salt Lake City. “I sat on my ass for three hours thinking of something to talk about.”
Want to get to know a guy? Spend three hours a day, every day, talking. Bonds are built quickly, and they last a lifetime. Outsiders engage at their own risk.
“We talk about anything and everything,” Rothe said. “Position players could walk by us and think we’re total weirdos.”
Of course, there’s a danger in that, too, Scott said. It doesn’t take much to go from “Band of Brothers” to the two kids snickering in the back of the classroom, missing the whole lesson.
“That community aspect, that can be helpful to just talk,” Scott said. “There was almost a confiding in each other thing we had. We could joke around. But at the same time, there were practices where we get carried away talking, but that’s now what we’re there for.”
“Our finest moment … and probably one of our lowest”
Strength coach Chris Jones helps oversee Wake Forest’s special-teamers during practice — a more modern twist on things in an era when support staff, even at a place like Wake, allows for a little more hands-on time between coaches and specialists. Still, punter Dom Maggio said, it makes for a strange sight. Jones is a former defensive tackle who won a Super Bowl with the Patriots and checks in at more than 280 pounds. He dwarfs the guys he’s coaching, but he’s brought some focus to those practice sessions, accounting for time that might otherwise be left to the kickers to organize on their own. It’s helped.
Flexibility drills, mobility drills, kicking to targets to work on accuracy, endless work on finer details like drop times.
“I’ll do periods of just straight drop drills,” Maggio said. “People joke about how many times I’ve done it. Trainers just walk by me and start counting — ‘one one thousand, two one thousand.’ I think it’s made me better at math.”
Maggio said the Wake specialists take pride in the more structured approach, believe it’s made the unit better. It’s a refrain echoed by Newsome and Blankenship and specialists around the country aiming to change the notion that the job is easy. And yet, even here, they have their moments.
There’s a tackling drill Wake’s punters and kickers do where they chase down what amounts to a giant rolling tire, grab hold, and try to drag it to the ground. It’s meant to simulate the safety-valve nature of the job. If a returner gets loose, grab hold and hang on for dear life.
So one day, one of Wake’s specialists — Maggio won’t name names — decided to up the difficulty level.
“Watch this,” he told his teammates before sprinting toward the tire, lunging forward and perfectly diving through the hole in the middle, never touching the tire, emerging on the other side in celebration. The entire group, coaches included, burst out laughing before the specialist in question was sent to run laps.
“It was our finest moment,” Maggio said, “and probably one of our lowest moments.”