With three-year starter Paulo Henriques graduating following the 2012 season, Memphis was in search of a kicker. It’s safe to say they found one. Freshman Jake Elliott connected on his first 11 field goal attempts of his career, with his first miss coming last Saturday against SMU.
“The first kick was definitely nerve wracking,” said Elliott. “I adjusted and I just block everything out and it feels like a high school game. I hope they have the confidence to send me out whenever they want. I’ll be up for it and I’ll be ready.”
Elliott took a different route to a college scholarship than most Divison I athletes. He didn’t start playing football until his junior year of high school, and was more focused on tennis. He had friends who played on the football team who informed the coaches that their search for a kicker needed to end with Elliott.
“I went to practice and kicked a few, and he told me to come back tomorrow if you want,” Elliott explained. “I thought it over, decided to come back and it turned out pretty good. It just came naturally to me.”
The 5-foot-10 freshman played soccer until the sixth grade and said he always watched his friends play football, but never actually played it himself. When he put on the pads for the first time, he said it felt a little bit strange.
“I had to get some help,” Elliott joked. “I don’t like it.”
Elliott attended some kicking camps during his junior and senior year of high school, but still never dreamed that he could turn his unusual ability into a college scholarship.
“I never had a clue until late in my junior year when I started getting some letters and what not,” he said.
He had a really good camp in December of his senior year. A week later, Memphis called and he came up for a visit.
The Illinois native has since flourished at his position, and has been the starter for the U of M since day one. The kicking role this season has been even more crucial, considering the lack of efficiency on offense for the Tigers. Memphis is averaging just over 20 points per game.
“Every kick is absolutely critical and it could be a game changer,” Elliott said. “I look at it as if it could be a game winning kick, or a game losing kick. I have to be prepared for every rep that I get and make sure that I can capitalize.”
Elliott is now 11 out of 12 on field goals this season, and he has yet to miss an extra point. He leads the team in scoring with 43 points, and is 2 of 2 on field goals beyond 50 yards, including a career-high 52-yarder last week against SMU.
“The snapper, the holder, and I are together all day,” Elliott explained. “We have good chemistry there. The front line does a great job keeping me protected and keeping the holder protected. I’m comfortable and coming in as a freshman, not having the experience with them in prior years, was difficult. But I adjusted quick and they adjusted quick. The chemistry is flawless. It’s a good situation.”
Even though most coaches never want their kicker to have to make a tackle, Elliott already has made four this season. He admitted he probably isn’t the best go-to guy for tackling lessons.
“I’ve never been in that situation before,” he said. “I never made a tackle in high school, so I just try and get in the way. We’ll practice it every once in a while, but never actually making big hits.”
Being a tennis player growing up, Elliott said that it has been hard adjusting to the team concept of football and not having the ultimate control of the outcome like in an individual sport. But like most athletes, Elliott has developed superstitions during the week to keep his momentum going. He said he never realizes that he is doing them, but they just make him feel comfortable.
“If I make a bunch of kicks, sometimes I’ll grab my pants and pull them up before I kick,” Elliott added. “Sometimes I’ll spit twice or something.”
One thing Elliott explained he doesn’t miss about tennis is the lack of team camaraderie. Jumping into a major role on a Division I football team isn't easy, but Elliott credits the relationship he has built with his teammates as the reason he has become so at ease on the field.
“They’ve been unbelievable,” Elliott said. “I try to block that out though, because I don’t want them to think I’m never going to miss. I love the support, but I have to stay humble.”
Elliott's career began with a few friends recommending him to their high school football coaches, and has taken off ever since. Now, he just wants to make the most of the opportunity that he has been blessed with by delivering for his new friends when his number is called.