Ask any football coach where close games are won and lost and they will all tell you the same thing: special teams.
Special team players — kickers and punters in particular — can be the most loved or most reviled players on a football field based on just feet, literally. Luckily for Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain and his team, the Rams are on good footing thanks to two guys who McElwain lovingly refers to as “Kicker” and “Punt Guy.”
Jared “Kicker” Roberts was a first-team All-Mountain West selection last season after hitting 21 of 24 field goal attempts, including the game-winner in the Rams’ come-from-behind win over Washington State in the 2013 Gildan New Mexico Bowl, as well as all 58 of his extra point attempts.
Hayden “Punt Guy” Hunt replaced four-year starter “Punter” Pete Kontodiakos, averaging 41.9 yards per punt while putting 14 of his 64 punts inside the opponents 20-yard line. Hunt was also was named to the Ray Guy Award watch list as one of the nation’s elite punters.
As the Rams head into their final scrimmage of the spring before next weekend’s spring game, Collegian football reporter Keegan Pope sat down with CSU’s two unnamed standouts to discuss nicknames, their relationship with McElwain and what they’re doing in the spring to build off of a strong 2013-14 season.
Q: What was it like the first time Coach McElwain referred to you by your position instead of your actual name like the other guys on the team?
Roberts: “People don’t really know this, but in high school some of my coaches started calling me “Kicker,” but it never really stuck until I got here. Because of that, it’s something that I really didn’t think twice about when Coach Mac started doing it.”
Hunt: “It was kind of an honor because when I first got here I was just Hayden. But, then when I started earning my place, and started hearing “Punt Guy,” I realized he was really taking me serious as a football player. I actually like that nickname because it means I’ve still got my job.”
Q: Some guys might take offense to being called by their position instead of their name, but you guys see it is a sign of respect from coach. It’s obviously all in good fun, but what’s that relationship like between you and him?
Roberts: “He jokes around with everybody and has different nicknames for all the guys on the team, so I don’t think it’s really any different than what it is for the other guys. We all have a ton of respect for Coach Mac and we all love playing for him and this kind of stuff is one of the reasons we all love playing here.”
Q: As a specialist, especially a punter or kicker, you toe a fine line between success and failure. People love you when you pin one inside the five or hit a game-winner, but they can also turn on you if you shank one out of bounds or miss that kick. What’s that role like where you can either be the hero or the goat in a matter of seconds?
Hunt: “We obviously don’t get in a lot but it’s a lot of pressure when we do go in there. I look at it like I’m a baseball player where I get maybe three or four chances per game, but I can’t fail 70 percent of the time and be successful. I just take it one play at a time and I actually enjoy that pressure because it means that the team is counting on me.”
Q: The spring is obviously pretty different from the regular season because you guys don’t have those pressure situations to test yourself like you do on game days. But, what are your guys’ biggest goals for this spring knowing you’ll have to wait until next fall to see the results out on the field?
Roberts: “Kicker is one of the hardest positions to replicate what you’re going to face on game day when you’re out here in practice. But Coach Mac does a great job of putting us in pressure situations and making us better through that. As a kicker, you can always improve in some way, so the biggest thing for me is getting better accuracy on my shorter kicks and having more confidence in my leg when it comes to the long-distance kicks.”
Hunt: “You have to come every day thinking of that end goal and making progress to get there. I’m not trying to work on every aspect of my punting each day, some days it’ll be pinning them inside the 20 (yard line), others it’ll be working to get better hang time on my kicks. For me, it just really comes down to being more consistent.”
Collegian Reporter Keegan Pope can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @kpopecollegian.