When the ball rocketed off Hunter Niswander’s right leg, he knew it felt clean. The rain pouring all around him was no deterrent – not before he received, dropped, reared back and pummeled that famous hemi-spherical pigskin object more than 80 net yards, and certainly not after. The ball sailed deep, kicking team personnel chased and the return man watched it sail safely over his head and out of play.
In sum, Niswander – the highest-rated punting prospect in 2011 according to Kicking.Com and one of the most coveted kickers/punters in his class and, if it wasn’t already abundantly clear, one of Northwestern’s 19 commitments in 2013 – punted the ball a really long way, so long, in fact, that his own conservative projection put it somewhere in the vicinity of 100 yards.
Maybe the best part about the whole thing, besides the crowd’s immediate roar of amazement, was Niswander staying so level-headed about a punt that, even for a player of his pedigree, was more than a few notches above ordinary. Brilliant is a better way to describe it.
“I wasn’t really surprised,” Niswander recalls about his booming precipitation-riddled boot against Garrettsville-Garfield last season. “It was more of me just hitting the ball well in the conditions. I just kind of hit it well and watched it go down field.”
His talents are the type that can tip the balance in the special teams game at the highest levels of college football. Punting is only one facet of Niswander’s repertoire. He just so happens to be equally versed – Despite a large frame (6’5’’, 210 pounds) that screams punter, Niswander holds firm to a self-ascribed two-way special teams balance. “I feel like I have been blessed with skills in both,” he said – in field-goal kicking, even if his career-long, 53 yards, doesn’t feature a reality-stretching sequence of sloppy weather conditions and dumbfounded reactions from fans and players and a downright clueless return man.
Pressure and high-drama sequences are things Niswander relishes, to be sure, but his confidence is measured, vastly outpaced by his immense kicking and punting proficiency. “It’s something I look forward to, I love those types of kicks,” Niswander said of crucial crunch time kicks. “As a kicker, you want to be able to do that for your team. It’s part of being a kicker.”
Last season, Niswander was on hand when Northwestern kicker Jeff Budzien found himself in one of those very situations. With One minute and 10 seconds left on the clock and the Wildcats trailing by one, Budzien lined up from 53 yards in an attempt to knock off visiting Nebraska and put Northwestern in prime position to seize control of the Legends Division. “I was there,” recalls Niswander, who went on to dissect the angle and distance of Budzien’s miss. “Three yards to the right. I remember.”
It was Budzien’s only miss last season, the one kick out of 20 tries that missed. Niswander rejects the notion that kickers are assigned inordinate amounts of blame for missing in critical situations. “I don’t think it’s unfair,” he said. It’s part of the reason why, rather than getting worked up over the potential negative backlash of a last-second shank, Niswander tries to relish the moment. “I’d say I get more excited about those things than nervous,” he said. He sympathized with Budzien, and preferred instead to talk about the Groza Award semifinalist’s season in full.
Believe it or not, Budzien and punter Brandon Williams have evolved into something like model figures for Niswander. Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko and personal coach Filip Filipovic are the first names Niswander talks about, but Budzien and Williams are on his short list.
“I look up to the guys at Northwestern,” he said.
Cracking an 80-net-yard punt or nailing a long game-winning field goal would be nice first year accomplishments for Niswander, but his goals are surprisingly modest. “I’m just expecting to come in and compete,” he said.
Just like his humble attitude, Niswander’s first-year aspirations downplay what could turn into one of the most versatile and diversely proficient special teams forces in the Big Ten.