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The Sideline Report with Alonso Rojas

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Let's get right to this week's Sideline Report with Kansas punter Alonso Rojas.

The Sideline Report with Alonso Rojas

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Jesse Newell: You started as a soccer player, right? Tell me about that.

Alonso Rojas: It’s actually funny. Growing up, I died for football. I used to watch it all the time. Grew up watching the (Miami) Hurricanes’ games. My sister went to the University of Miami. I always watched the Dolphins’ games, the Hurricanes’ games.

I always loved football, and my mom always used to say — we had a friend whose son got hurt bad with football — ‘You’re too small,’ because I didn’t grow until about sophomore year of high school. Always too small and undersized. I was fast and quick, unlike now (laughs). No, I was a lot faster and quicker when I was young. I didn’t weigh as much. I was a little shorter, so I was a lot shiftier. I had good ball-handling skills. I played soccer all the way until I was about 16 or 17, I was really competitive. ... My whole life growing up, I played soccer, I loved it, but I really, really love football, so I decided to stick with football.

JN: How did you convince your mom that you could play football, then?

AR: Well, I kind of got into the whole story how I’ve gotten a little bit bigger and kids are more my size now. I just said, ‘Look, Mom, I just want to play football. That’s what I want to do.’ My early years in high school, I was fast. I have good hands, so I went out for tight end, played a little linebacker. It might have been three days before the season started, my coach goes, ‘Wait a second, we don’t have a kicker. Anybody know how to kick?’ I go, ‘Well, I played soccer.’ And he’s like, ‘Well all right, then. I guess you’re our kicker.’ Ever since then, I started kicking. I kind of started getting pretty good at it, fluent with it, so I stuck with kicking.

JN: Is it pretty amazing that you went from, ‘Oh hey, you’re the kicker,’ to the top-ranked punter in the nation a few years later?

AR: It was an honor. Again, rankings don’t really mean much. It was a good honor, being ranked that. It felt good. I had a lot of naysayers, a lot of soccer friends that said, ‘Dude, you never should have quit soccer. You were so good.’ I was like, ‘You know what, I’m a football player now. I have a feeling that I can possibly play football at the next level.’

JN: Was it just a natural thing when you first punted a ball?

[Ed. Note — Not Alonso, but funny nonetheless.]

AR: Actually, I wasn’t a punter at all. I was a kicker, but they needed a punter. I believe it was my sophomore year in high school, I finally had a kicking coach. He was just a kicking coach — straight kicker. I kicked and kicked. He said, ‘You know what, I want to see you punt a ball.’ So I punted the ball, and it actually went 45 yards, 50 yards with good hang time and a perfect spiral turned over. He was like, ‘You’re a natural punter.’ And I never realized it. So I kicked a little more, and I kicked in high school and punted both. I was mostly a kicker. I wanted to be a kicker in college, but then, I met my second coach because I moved on to coaches to get better opinions, and he was like, ‘You’ve got to stop kicking. You’ve got to punt. You’re so natural at it.’ I guess my leg swing was so natural. Everything about it was natural. So I just stuck with punting.

JN: Do you miss soccer at all then?

AR: I do, actually. The year I sat out, I actually played a little indoor soccer to stay in shape, played with friends. Every time I’d go home, I’d play with my cousins, little pickup games. With the kickers here, sometimes we’d get together on the weekends and whenever we get spare time, we just juggle the soccer ball, we pass it around, we kick it around. We’ll go in the goal and shoot at each other. We always stay in touch with our first roots, which is soccer for most of us.

JN: Is soccer pretty big in Miami?

AR: Yeah. If you lived in Miami, you would know. It’s very different. It’s culturally diverse, so a lot of Latin Americans and people from Europe and Africa and all other continents, that’s one of the main melting pots where they migrate to. A lot of the soccer teams there are well-cultured. They have different races, different ethnicities, and soccer’s very competitive. I would say other than football, I’d say soccer is one of the biggest sports in Miami.

JN: I mentioned this before, but you were the No. 1-ranked punter out of high school. Is that something a lot of people don’t realize about you?

AR: Yeah. A lot of people ask me, ‘Why Bowling Green?’ That’s what they ask me is, ‘Why’d you choose Bowling Green?’ And, I told them, ‘I love football. I want to play. I want to get an education.’ Not very many schools were offering (scholarships to) punters, period. So I took what I could get. A lot of the Florida schools, you could be a walk-on. A lot of schools were walk-on. But I wanted to get my school paid for. I wanted to play football really badly. So I chose Bowling Green. Things didn’t go accordingly, but I got blessed and was able to come over here to Kansas and play for a great team.

JN: You had as many stars coming out of high school as Sam Bradford (four), and you had double the stars of Todd Reesing (two). What’s your reaction to that?

AR: My reaction to that, for me, I’d say Todd’s a five-star.

The way he plays on the field and the way he ... I’m surprised Bradford only had four stars. Bradford’s an amazing athlete, an amazing quarterback as Todd is. I’m surprised Todd had two. A lot of teams, they skipped out on a heck of a player. He’s a great athlete, a great quarterback and shows that every Saturday.

JN: I saw on Scout.com you are the No. 5-ranked punter for the class of 2010, which would be next year. So is there a possibility that you would skip out on your senior year and go pro?

AR: Oh. No no no no no no no no. (smiles) Definitely not. My education comes before all, and coach Mangino strictly enforces that. Football doesn’t last a lifetime. Your degree is very important. That wouldn’t even cross my mind. I love it here. I’m having a great time. I’m looking forward to ending this season very strong and pretty much achieving the goals the team has set out. After that, we come back for the winter and get ready for the offseason and play another year next year.

JN: What’s your degree in then?

AR: Sports management. It’s part of the school of education. And a minor in business.

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JN: When did you learn to rugby kick?

AR: It was something I was messing around with my freshman year. I kind of wasn’t really thrilled about it because ... it’s not that I didn’t like it, it’s just I wasn’t consistent at it. I would punt the ball real far with the rugby kick and I’d have two bad ones, and I’d have two really good ones and a bad one. It was off. So my freshman year, I was like, ‘Man, I don’t like this. I like it, but I don’t. This is cool. If I could actually get this down, I could boom the ball.’ It didn’t work out too good for me, but during the offseason, I was like, ‘I’ve got to be ready for anything.’ So I worked on it, worked on it, got pretty good at it. It was just something that came naturally. I had a natural side-swing to my leg. It’s kind of a weird swing, because it’s kind of a mix between kicking and punting, because your leg is actually going sideways. It’s just something I got good at. I’m happy I can help out the team doing it now, use it as a weapon.

JN: Did Bowling Green want you to do that all the time, then?

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AR: No, not really. We actually punted straight more than we rugbied. That’s why I feel like I wasn’t really mad that I had to do it, I was more mad that I wasn’t able to get it down. I try to be a perfectionist at punting, and it’s almost impossible to do. You have your bad ones. It’s something that Bowling Green asked me to do every once in a while, and it’s something that I struggled with a little bit. But I’m actually happy now that I’m doing pretty good with it.

JN: At what point did you think, ‘Hey, I’ve got this down’?

AR: Last season, towards the end of the year, I was messing around in practice. I hit a bomb. It was a pretty (long) punt.

JN: How long?

AR: I punted it from the 20-yard line, and I think it went close to the other goal line. It was a perfect spiral. I was like, ‘Man, this is pretty cool,’ so I told one of the coaches, ‘Hey, check this out.’ And it wasn’t as far of a punt, but it was pretty far, too. That’s when I realized, ‘Man, I’m pretty good at this. If the team ever needed me to do this, I could do it pretty good.’

JN: Which coach did you tell?

AR: It was (wide receivers) coach (David) Beaty and (special teams) coach (Louie) Matsakis. They were kind of shocked a little bit. They were like, ‘Whoa. Gosh. That’s a heck of a kick.’

JN: Did you see their minds starting to turn already?

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AR: It’s funny. I said to myself, ‘Uh oh, I think I just gave them some ideas.’ (laughs) No, we kept punting regularly until about the last game. It’s worked out perfect for us. We’ve got great schemes for it. I think we’re doing a really good job.

JN: That was huge against MU’s Jeremy Maclin, right?

AR: Yeah. Obviously, everyone knew he was coming up and going to be a really good NFL prospect, first round. Everyone was saying that this guy’s probably going to take plenty to the house. But we schemed him pretty good. I thought we did an unbelievable job. The coaches, with the blocking, and me just rolling out. If Maclin’s short, kick it long. If Maclin’s long, kick it short and let it roll so our coverage gets down there and he won’t have any time to return the ball. I thought we did a pretty good job against him.

JN: How important is the drop in punting the football?

AR: Coaches say different things. What one of my coaches told me is, ‘Punting is 90-percent mental, 10-percent physical.’ I would say that’s pretty accurate. I would say 90-percent mental, about 8.5-percent of that is your drop.

JN: Really?

AR: If you don’t have a good drop, you’re not going to have a good punt. It’s pretty much everything. You can overstride a little bit, but if you have a good drop, you’ll still have a nice punt. You have good strides and a bad drop, it’s not going to go very far. That’s been something I’ve been working on really hard is to have a steady, consistent drop.

JN: Isn’t that interesting, because a lot of people would not think that you dropping the ball a couple feet is going to make a big difference.

AR: Right. What people don’t know is that punting, it’s not about how big your leg is or how well you can blast the ball. It’s mostly about your drop. I think it’s a very hard thing to master. Anyone who’s had any athletic ability in them and knows how to punt their toe like a punter should, they get a decent drop and the ball will go pretty far. It’ll go 40 yards, between 40 and 30, somewhere in there. Nothing real big, but it will be a nice punt. Coach Matsakis, it’s funny actually, he hasn’t really lost his drop because he’ll go out there sometimes and punt a little bit, and he’ll have some 40-yard, perfect-turned-over punts. And then sometimes, (cornerbacks) coach (Je'Ney) Jackson will be out there, and coach Jackson’s a very strong guy. He still works out, and he’s got a strong leg. His drop’s kind of off a little bit, so the ball won’t go as far. I’ve seen coach Jackson last year at the bowl, we were messing around before every practice, he’d be like, ‘All right, Rojas, me and you.’ He’d drop the ball, and he bombed one. I can’t remember how far it was, but he actually had a steady drop, it was a perfect drop, and he hit it like a punter would, and it went. I’m not going to lie, it was almost as far as mine, but I’m never going to say it was as far as mine.

JN: So what can go wrong with the drop?

AR: There are several aspects of the drop. You’ll have a drop with the wind behind or at your back, because obviously, the wind pushes the ball. It depends on how the wind’s blowing. Drops are always the best when there’s no wind. The best time to punt is when there’s no wind at all.

JN: Really? Even with it at your back is worse?

AR: Even at your back it’s not as good, because one, you don’t have as much hang time, and two, yeah, it goes far, but you can outkick your coverage plenty of times. Your drop when you drop the ball and it’s really windy, the ball will move forward, causing you to lean back and try to reach for the ball. Same with the wind in your face. You’ve got to hold the ball a little harder and longer and just try to hit it as hard as you can. Even then, it’s really hard. Your drop is probably the main thing in punting.

JN: Every time I watch an NFL game and there’s a shanked punt, they say it’s off the side of his foot. I’ve always wondered: Is every bad punt always off the side of your foot?

AR: No, not at all. They say the ball comes off the side of your leg. It’s really not the side of your leg or the side of your foot. What it is is you drop the ball, the ball will turn in on you, and you hit it straight on — because you want to hit the ball right here on the top of your foot. That’s where you want to hit the ball. When you hit the ball and the ball turns in on you — the ball’s like an egg — so if you hit the side of the ball, it’s going to go straight out to the right, or to the left, or end over end. So it’s really not coming off the side of your foot. There are times when it does come off the side of your foot, but in most of the cases, it’s really not that. It’s again your drop. Your drop’s really important. If your drop is a bad drop, you’ll shank it.

JN: I’ve always just wondered, ‘How does this guy in the booth know every single time it’s off the side of his foot?’

AR: And you really can’t see it. Have you seen that commercial, I think it’s Nike or Reebok, it’s a football commercial where the ball is being kicked by the kicker, and you can actually see the pressure of the ball actually pushing in. It’s just like that. Your leg speed is so fast that you really couldn’t tell if it’s coming off the side of your foot. Most of the times, it’s a solid hit, it’s just the ball, you hit the ball at the wrong spot. That’s what happens.

JN: So you just want to hit it square?

AR: You want to hit it square with very little angle. (Holds palm flat) Just perfect.

JN: Kale Pick has told me about your pingpong skills.

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AR: Oh man.

JN: Tell me about those battles.

AR: I knew it would come up. They were intense. Me and Kale probably sweat more in those pingpong matches than we would have in a summer workout. We were going at it. He’d hit a great point, I’d hit a great point. We looked like professional table-tennis players out there. We’re backed up at least three feet away from the table and hitting with topspin, slamming it on each other, all these fancy serves. Kale Pick, man, he surprised me.

I played a lot of pingpong back at home. I thought I was going to run the table, but Kale Pick gave me a challenge. There’s a lot of guys on the team that are pretty good at pingpong that gave me a challenge. We played games, actual games we’d play with sets and games. We got intense. It was fun. It was a good time, too.

JN: So are you the best on the team?

AR: Am I the best on the team? Nope, I can’t say that because I truthfully haven’t played everybody. I really don’t know if I am.

JN: You’re the best known player on the team, then.

AR: When I played in the Insight Bowl, I don’t remember losing. I could have lost a couple sets, but I’ve ended up winning most of the games. (Jake) Laptad’s a pretty good pingpong player. My roommate, Darrell Stuckey, is another really good pingpong player. But I can’t say I’ve lost to them. I really can’t.

JN: Kale needs to get some more work in. Is that what you’re saying?

AR: Whatever bowl we go to this year, we’ll make sure there’s a pingpong table there and we’ll go at it hard.

JN: Is that frustrating as a punter that the main stat that people keep track of (punting average) is kind of misleading?

AR: It’s not so much frustrating. It’s just people don’t really know the truth behind punting. When they hear, ‘Oh, this guy had an 80-yard punt.’ Well was it a 40-yard punt and then it rolled 40 yards? It’s really not all about that. It’s really about being fundamentally sound in the punting game. ... It won’t do me any good to punt the ball 60 yards and have no hang time or 60 yards and through the end zone or 60 yards and I outkick my coverage and the guy’s going to have 20 or 30 yards to work with before my guys even get there.

JN: Are you told specifically where to put every punt that you have?

AR: It’s complicated. We’ll get calls, and based on what they give me and what the call is, I kind of make my own decision of where I’m going to put the ball. I put it where I feel like our team’s going to have a better chance. ... It all depends on scenarios. Maybe we’re in tight — they’re giving us a look where we’re in tight — if I’m on the right hash, I’ll probably, maybe angle the ball out of bounds. If we’re right in the middle of the field or the left hash, most likely, I’ll probably hang it up as high as I can and make the guy fair catch. It’s little things that people don’t know is what I want to do and how I feel helps out the team the best.

JN: As a punter, are you happy when you get to punt, or are you upset?

AR: It’s funny. My academic counselor and athletic personnel in the athletic department always tell me, ‘Hey, good luck this weekend. Hopefully, we don’t see you out there that much.’ Any time the offense does a good job, I’m happy. You want to play, but if you don’t play, you’re not going to be mad about it. That means your offense is doing a great job. Whenever you get out there, you have the opportunity to shine and help the team out as much as you can. You take it pridefully and excel at what you do.

JN: What’s your demeanor on the sidelines during a game?

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AR: I don’t do much in the game. I punt. So I try to get the guys hyped up as much as possible. I try to get the crowd going. That’s something I like to do — help out as much as possible. If I can’t help out on the field, I’m going to help out my teammates by picking them up, telling them ‘Good job,’ ‘Try better next play,’ ‘Let’s go,’ ‘Get pumped up,’ and help get the crowd up and going. It’s something that I pride myself in, because Coach tells us, ‘Guys on the sideline, get in the game, help your teammates out.’ Every time I hear coach say that, I’m right there on the sideline helping my team win.

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