Editor's note: Randy York is writing his N-Sider column as a daily Countdown to Big Red Saturday. Upcoming columns are on baseball's homegrown talent, Taylor Martinez, Bo Pelini and volleyball's Nebraska conversions.
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As Nebraska continues to count down to Saturday's annual Red-White Spring Game, we have bad news, and we have good news.
The bad news: The most accurate kicker in NCAA history and the most underrated punter in college football is gone in one fell swoop. Alex Henery is expected to be drafted in the NFL later this month and then get married next month in Omaha.
The good news: The guy who assisted Henery's 54-for-54 extra point kicks and 18-for-19 field goal performance last season is ready to step out of the obscurity as a holder and into the pressure-cooker not only as Henery's successor, but also as an official member of his wedding party.
Meet Brett Maher, a multi-talented athlete who spurned two Division I football scholarships (Colorado State and Ohio University) to follow his dream to kick for the mighty Nebraska Cornhuskers. A junior, he walked on from Kearney, Neb., where he won two all-class gold medals at the state high school track meet, clearing 16-2 in the pole vault and leaping 22-10 in the long jump.
In no one's mind would it be a quantum leap for Maher to challenge for and, in fact, win all three kicking jobs this fall - as a placekicker, punter and kickoff man. Maher has kicked a 53-yard field goal in live competition this spring and has waited patiently for the chance to succeed Henery, who beat him out of both the kicking and punting jobs the past two seasons.
The Battle: A Walk-On and a Late Scholarship Offer
Don't bet against Maher winning the same two jobs he lost, even though Nebraska's last scholarship in February went to Mauro Bondi, a veritable kicking diamond in the rough that the Huskers lured away from a previous commitment to Wake Forest.
Bondi kicked a 51-yard field goal as a junior at West Boca Raton High School in Florida. A former soccer star who wanted to try his leg at football showed up late on most recruiters' radar, and the experts think the Huskers got a last-minute steal, thanks to John Papuchis, who oversees Nebraska's special teams.
As much as Papuchis relished the chance to coach a legendary kicker like Henery, he is not losing sleep this spring, nor does he expect to worry next fall. With Maher and Bondi, the coach everyone calls "J.P." has proven athletes, competitive kickers and instant depth the second Bondi arrives on campus this summer.
"We're going to let Brett and Mauro battle it out for all three kicking spots in fall camp," Papuchis said. "They're both three-tiered guys with the ability to win all three jobs. We'll just have to see how it all plays out."
Papuchis is handling his NKAA (Nebraska Kicking After Alex) challenge like he handles every other assignment Bo Pelini sends his way - with confidence, organization and savvy to optimize all possibilities.
The Only Goal: Just Be the Best You Can Be
"I've talked to our kickers and let them know what I expect," Papuchis said. "Alex was a joy to coach, a tremendous football player and will have a great career in the NFL, but what I've asked both kickers to do is focus and be the best they can be. If they do what they can do and control what they can control, they can have a lot of success here."
In other words, don't use Henery - who made 68 of his 76 career field goal attempts and averaged 43.2 and 41.4 yards in his two seasons as the Huskers' punter - as the standard for measurement. Maher and Bondi are talented enough athletes never to take a back seat to an NCAA record book or settle for second fiddle in the shadows of one of Nebraska's all-time favorite players. They can create shadows of their own.
Therefore, the only way to approach "Life After Alex" is to let the competition begin!
Like every other coach on the Nebraska staff, Papuchis will stick to his game plan, even if Maher kicks a 60-yard field goal in the Spring Game and averages 50 yards a punt.
"At the end of the day," Papuchis said, "we want to create a competitive atmosphere for every position on the team, including kicker. So, it's not where you come out of the spring. It's where you come out of fall camp. That's more important than anything."
A Closer Look at the Right Stuff for Both Kickers
Since both kickers have "The Right Stuff" to win all three jobs, let's take a closer look and see why:
Brett Maher "has tremendous leg strength," Papuchis said. "I have no worries at all in terms of how far he can kick it. He's just starting to figure out how good he can be." Papuchis thinks Maher's field goal range is between 50 and 55 yards. He also thrives as a directional punter, a skill set he learned at Kearney after some work with Husker All-America punter Kyle Larson, whose dad, Steve, was one of Maher's track coaches. As far as kickoffs go, the early line is that Maher can boom 'em with the best of 'em.
Mauro Bondi "is still in the early stages in terms of what his upside can be," Papuchis said. "He came to us highly recommended from different kicking sources around the country. He didn't really become visible until his junior year. Once we found out about him and watched some film, it didn't take long for us to see he's a guy we want on our team." In kicking camps and combines, Bondi "seemed like he had a leg where he could be a 55-yard-plus guy," Papuchis said. "His leg strength is one of his most obvious upsides." Showing shades of Adi Kunalik, Bondi booted 45 of his 55 kickoff attempts for touchbacks as a senior. For good measure, he also averaged 43.2 yards per punt.
Papuchis is a bit understated and always soft-spoken, but whenever he says something, it seems to ring true among his fellow coaches, not to mention all of the players who love to listen to him and are willing to walk through a proverbial wall for him.
Highly analytical and considered perhaps the most pragmatic member of Bo Pelini's staff, Papuchis has been pure gold since Pelini gave him his first chance as a full-time assistant coach after working with him on LSU's 2007 national championship team. J.P. works every bit as smart as he works hard, and he always makes sure that all of his kickers and special teams players have a global view of how important their performance is in the outcome of every game.
"Every time we take the field, there's an opportunity for us to either gain or change the momentum of the game in several ways," Papuchis said. "We also set the tempo for every first half and second half and have the chance to win the field position battle for a defensive-minded team."
Nine Return 'Weapons' and Seven Well-Known Hitters
Special teams performance, of course, goes beyond kickers and punters. Papuchis said there will be major practice battles to determine both kick and punt returners and the list of candidates is long - Kenny Bell, Rex Burkhead, Khiry Cooper, Quincy Enunwa, Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Brandon Kinnie, Tim Marlowe, Josh Mitchell and Jamal Turner.
"We have options, and we have weapons as kick returners," Papuchis said, adding that the hustling Huskers also have special team stars that can cover kickoffs and punts against the nation's best. "In terms of cover guys, Eric Martin is always the first one that comes to everyone's mind," Papuchis said before mentioning Austin Cassidy, Corey Cooper, Harvey Jackson, Matt May, P.J. Smith and Graham Stoddard.
"We're still trying to figure out who's going to be on all those units," Papuchis said. "But we have a good combination of experience and depth coming back, and some young guys are chomping at the bit for their opportunity to get on the field."
So stay tuned and use your Spring Game roster sheet to see who really stands out. Remember though, it's not how you come out of the spring. It's how you come out of the fall.
And just in case you missed it the first time, here's the biggest Nebraska coaching message of the winter, spring, summer and fall with one line added for extra punch:
Let the competition begin.
And may the best man win!
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