College kickers and punters live in a much different world than most of their teammates.
While the majority of players on Football Bowl Subdivision teams come to school on scholarships, many kickers and punters walk on to teams and have to prove themselves in open tryouts. Once the kickers establish themselves, they often earn scholarships.
That’s the route Baylor kicker Connor Martin has taken. While he isn’t yet on scholarship, he’s certainly making a case for himself by emerging as one of the top kickers in the Big 12 as a sophomore this season.
Martin has been a bright spot for the winless Bears who come into Saturday’s homecoming game against West Virginia at McLane Stadium with an 0-6 record.
Martin has proven his accuracy by nailing 11 of 13 field goals, and has shown he can kick long by drilling a 46-yarder against Oklahoma. His 84.6 field goal percentage is the best in the Big 12.
“My thing has always been to try to be more accurate because I wasn’t as big,” said Martin, who is 5-9 and 180 pounds. “If you’re a kicker and get a scholarship out of high school, you’re usually a big guy who has a huge leg. I had a strong leg but not like some of these other guys. So I prided myself a lot on being accurate.”
Despite his lack of size, Martin has the potential to kick beyond 50 yards. During pregame last week against Oklahoma State, he nailed a 61-yarder, and hit a 65-yarder in practice several weeks ago.
“I’d love to hit a 50-yarder (in a game),” Martin said. “My whole mindset is focusing on the kick and how it should feel. I’ve kicked thousands of footballs and I know what a good kick feels like. So that’s all I’m thinking about when I’m on the field about to kick is just a good rep.”
After Drew Galitz went out with a season-ending knee injury on a kickoff against Kansas State on Sept. 30, Martin doubled his load by taking on Galitz’s punting duties.
Galitz ranked second in the Big 12 with a 45.2-yard punting average, but the Bears haven’t suffered with Martin stepping in as he’s averaged 44.5 yards on eight punts. Bears coach Matt Rhule took some of the load off Martin by bringing in freshman Jay Sedwick from the Baylor student body to handle kickoffs.
“I felt really bad for Drew watching him go down,” Martin said. “But I did all three (kicking, punting and kickoffs) in high school, so it was a matter of getting back into that rhythm. After getting used to it again, I felt fine.”
Martin and Oklahoma’s Austin Seibert are the only specialists in the Big 12 who handle both kicking and punting duties. It’s difficult to specialize in both at a high level since they are two different leg motions.
“They’re pretty different motions, so it takes a lot of drill work to get back into that punting motion,” Martin said. “You have a tendency to swing your leg across your body (as a kicker), and you don’t want to do that when you punt. Punting is a weird thing. You have to be a different type to punt, I think.”
Rhule is thankful that he can depend on Martin to handle both kicking and punting.
“He’s done a really nice job punting and kicking 45-yarders without even thinking about it,” Rhule said. “So he’s brought a consistency to us that has been nice. And I’d say it’s all been Connor’s hard work and mental toughness. I just love the way that he’s been focused and locked in. In the midst of things going on, you try to find guys getting better, and keep pushing those guys forward, so he’s been a good weapon for us.”
After preseason camp ended, Rhule’s plan was for Martin to kick points after touchdowns and shorter field goals, and for Galitz to kick long field goals, kick off and punt. But Martin has proven he can kick field goals with great accuracy whether they’re short or long.
“We’ve coached him really hard because in preseason he really struggled, but he’s emerged as one of the more consistent guys on our team,” Rhule said. “A lot of kids have the leg to kick long field goals, but they overthink it. It’s like when you try to over-hit a golf club and the ball goes way over there. But as Connor has made kicks, he’s grown more and more confident, and it’s like he’s hitting his pitching wedge, and he’s knocking the ball in from deeper.”
Martin is different than many college kickers in that he didn’t grow up playing a lot of soccer before turning to kicking. He started developing his kicking skills during impromptu football games with his friends.
“People always ask if I played soccer because a lot of kickers played soccer,” Martin said. “But I didn’t really like soccer. I always played streetball with my friends. I’d take my right shoe off and use it as a tee and I’d kick it out of my shoe. It sounds kind of silly but that’s how I started. Sixth grade was the first year I played football, and I actually kicked barefooted that year.”
Martin began kicking with a shoe in seventh grade, and saw his future as a specialist. He tried playing quarterback as a freshman, but quickly realized that he should stick to kicking.
“I played quarterback my freshman year, but my passion was kicking, and I wanted to do it in college,” Martin said. “I played in one game, and I ran 15 yards for a first down, but that’s pretty much my QB career summed up right there. I wasn’t a quarterback, I was a kicker.”
During his freshman year, Martin began working with kicking specialist Scott Blanton, a former kicker for the Oklahoma Sooners and Washington Redskins. Blanton has trained many kickers and punters in the Metroplex, including Sedwick and former Baylor kicker Chris Callahan.
“Connor was a little small but he overcame it because he has a passion for kicking,” Blanton said. “College coaches want bigger, stronger guys, but he had a really good work ethic and got stronger. He was actually a really good punter in high school and his field goals were always good. He can compete with anybody in the country below 45 yards.”
Martin handled kicking and punting duties for three years at Frisco Centennial High School, and helped his team win a pair of district titles. He got a partial scholarship offer from Abilene Christian, but wanted to play for a Power 5 conference school.
He decided to walk on at Baylor after former high school teammate Raleigh Texada, a defensive back, told the Baylor coaches about him.
“The only reason I got here was because of Raleigh,” Martin said. “He was a scholarship guy here and passed my name on to the coaches.”
With Callahan still kicking at Baylor last season, Martin played in just two games, but hit all five of his points after touchdowns in a win over Oklahoma State. After Callahan decided not to return for his senior year, Martin emerged from spring drills this year as the No. 1 kicker.
Besides his field goal accuracy, he’s hit 13 of 14 points after touchdowns, with his only miss coming against Duke.
“He missed an extra point at Duke and a field goal against Oklahoma, but after that point, it’s clicked, and he’s said ‘I can do this.’” Rhule said. “So I’m really pleased with him. And I’m pleased that Jay (Sedwick) has emerged, so now he doesn’t have to do all three, because if he had to do all three, I think that would have an effect on him.”
Martin hopes to keep proving to the Baylor coaches that he can handle any kick regardless of the distance. Maybe someday he’ll get to attempt that 50-yard field goal he’s always dreamed about.
“As I’ve progressed through the season and have shown I can kick the longer ones I’ve gained more confidence,” Martin said. “They have no problem letting me kick the longer ones now. I had to prove to them I could do it. I didn’t want to share. I wanted to do it all.”