Nate Freese, an avid golfer who likes to play twice a week during the summer, says he brings the same mental approach in that sport to his role as the punter/kicker of Boston College’s football team.
“It’s kind of the same mind-set, just nice and easy,’’ Freese said. “You just go through your motion. It’s all muscle memory.’’
The 5-foot-11-inch, 192-pound senior from Strongsville, Ohio, where Freese grew up playing soccer and was a fan of the Cleveland Browns and their longtime kicker, Phil Dawson, has adopted that smooth and steady approach in his role as BC’s punter and kicker.
Freese, a Lou Groza Award candidate who ranks fifth in the nation with an active career field goal percentage of .836 (56 of 67), embraced the challenge off handling both duties this season after the departure of last year’s starting punter, Gerald Levano.
“In the beginning of the season, I was a little more sore, because the muscles I use to punt are a little bit different from kicking, so it took me a couple of weeks,’’ he said. “But I’m trying to get a little bit better at punting every week.’’
That much was evident in a 35-7 loss at Southern California, when Freese consistently pinned the Trojans deep in their territory, once inside their 10 after he boomed a career-long 65-yard punt.
“I mean, [losing to] USC was tough,’’ said Freese, who punted eight times for a 50.4-yard average against the Trojans. “But I felt like I took a step in the right direction in that game.’’
Freese is a valuable member of BC’s special teams, a unit which Eagles coach Steve Addazio lauded for its emergence in a 48-34 loss to eighth-ranked Florida State on Sept. 28 at Alumni Stadium.
But, it seemed, the rest of BC’s special teams was merely catching up to Freese, who always had provided the Eagles with a steady leg and a smooth delivery, evidenced this season by his perfect conversion rate on PATs (17 for 17) and field goals (6 for 6) in addition to his solid 42.2-yard punting average.
“He gives you great confidence,’’ Addazio said. “He’s a good punter; he’s an extremely good field goal kicker and kickoff guy. [He] pounded it into the end zone against a great [Florida State] return team — so he took that away from them.’’
BC had six kick returns for 162 yards and a pair of punt returns for 53 yards against Florida State. But Freese, who increased his season total on touchbacks to 16 on 19 kickoffs by game’s end, held the Seminoles to nary a yard on four punt returns and one kickoff return of 17 yards.
“The one time they returned it, I think our kickoff team did an incredible job,’’ Addazio said. “They stuffed them inside the 20. But he does it all.’’
In last Saturday’s 48-27 homecoming victory over Army, Freese gave his teammates a huge lift when he converted a 49-yard field goal before the first half expired, giving the Eagles a 31-20 lead.
The kick was 3 yards shy of matching his career long, vs. Wake Forest in 2011.
Freese’s success wasn’t by happenstance. It was the product of hard work he put in during the offseason at Mike McCabe’s One on One Kicking Camp in Pensacola, Fla., where he spent four weeks this summer away from the golf course, honing his kicking and punting game.
“I worked mostly on kicking, but in the back of my mind, after coming out of the spring, I knew I’d have to do some punting, too,’’ he said. “So I worked on punting down there a little bit, too. That really helped me out and I came prepared.’’
But the area in which he made the most gains? “Just my confidence, really,’’ Freese said. “When I’d go out there, whenever I’d get my chance, I’d be like, ‘Put the ball down, let’s go, let’s kick, let’s do it.’ Instead of being a little bit nervous, I want those chances.’’
Freese said he now relishes the opportunities to make a difference in a game. He hopes he’ll get that chance when the Eagles (3-2 overall, 1-1 Atlantic Coast Conference) travel to Clemson, S.C., Saturday for an Atlantic Division showdown against the third-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0).
“Very few times in a game, or during a season, are you going to get a chance from 50-plus [yards out],’’ Freese said. “So I’m going to focus more on the 30-45 range. I think it’s more important trying to hit those every single time than spend my whole time during practice trying to kick 55- and 60-yard field goals.’’
Just as in golf, in which you drive for show and putt for dough, Freese has learned that accuracy is crucial to success for college football kickers.
“You’ve got to be ready for those long ones,’’ Freese said. “But most of the kicks are from 30 to 45 yards. So whenever the opportunity comes, I want to be ready.’’Michael Vega can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.