With its scholarships reduced due to NCAA sanctions, Penn State has had to rely on walk-ons to fill its special teams. That will change with the arrival of Quinn Nordin, the top kicker in the recruiting class of 2016.
One of this season’s biggest social media sensations has been the emergence of Joey Julius. The Penn State kicker enthralls television viewers and Twitter users alike with his unusual combination of girth and kicking prowess.
A 5’10”, 259-pound sophomore, Julius, nicknamed “The Big Toe,” has connected on eight of his nine field goal tries this season, the second-highest percentage in the Big Ten. The former soccer player, who has been likened to Babe Ruth, is enjoying the spotlight so much that, in the fourth quarter of a 25-point win over Rutgers in September, he saw fit to hit “the Whip” while celebrating with teammates on the sideline.
Yet while Julius has drawn plenty of attention for a kicker and the Nittany Lions may feel comfortable about their kicking situation beyond 2015 if he continues his early success—for what it’s worth, he struggled during Saturday’s win over Indiana—Penn State has already devised a plan to supplant him.
In less than a year from now, Quinn Nordin will arrive in State College amid immense expectations. The top-ranked kicker in the class of 2016 is expected be ready the moment he steps on campus to make field goals in hostile road environments across the Midwest. This means Julius’s turn as a mini-celebrity in the college football universe is likely to be short lived. It also means Penn State is adding a remarkable prospect to a position group at which the Nittany Lions have resorted to deploying a cast of walk-ons.
Nordin counts scholarship offers from more than a dozen programs, but it was only a few years ago that he had not resolved to pursue a spot on a Division I special teams unit.
Nordin grew up playing soccer and lacrosse, among other sports, and lined up at different positions in football, including linebacker. He first began receiving scholarship offers in lacrosse, but his leg strength helped him excel as a kicker. “I didn’t know where the ball was going, but I could put it far downfield,” he says. Nordin attended a kicking camp administered by Kornblue Kicking prior to his freshman year at Rockford (Mich.) High, and as he worked harder to improve his form, he began to realize that he had the potential to kick in college.
He joined the Rams’ varsity squad as a sophomore, and he says he began hearing from schools after converting 14 of 19 field goals, averaging 37.7 yards per punt and earning a spot on the Grand Rapids Press Dream Team that season. Nordin’s recruitment picked up during his junior year, and he continued to add scholarship offers after booming the ball 65 yards through the uprights on camera in January.
When discussing his rise to one of the nation’s top high school specialists, Nordin is quick to credit Brandon Kornblue, the founder of the kicking company that bears his namesake. Through in-person instruction and tape evaluation, Kornblue helped Nordin harness the potential he flashed from an early age. By Kornblue’s estimation, Nordin hasn’t significantly increased his power over the past year, but he has become more consistent and accurate. “That’s where he’s improved the most,” Kornblue says, adding that “he’s still a work in progress. We’re still trying to work on getting him to where he needs to be.”
At Rockford, Nordin will pace through an intricate set of drills featuring skips, leg swings and 60-yard kicks. He can also be found kicking at Arena Football League goalposts at a nearby indoor facility. Nordin’s training regimen, which also includes yoga and weight training, has helped turn him—in an age when the hashtag #collegekickers celebrates the inconsistency of most kickers—into one of the most coveted prospects in the class of 2016, full stop.
Programs are more selective about handing out scholarship offers to specialists, often preferring to use their limited scholarship spots to provide depth at other positions. And unlike with offensive and defensive positions, teams don’t typically sign kickers and punters in every class. Yet by the time Nordin announced his college commitment in July, a number of big-time programs had offered him. His choice came down to Michigan and Penn State. The Wolverines were close and featured a new coach with an NFL pedigree, but they added a kicker (Andrew David) this year. The Nittany Lions, meanwhile, could sell a depth chart with no ostensible obstacles and were among the first Power Five programs to seriously pursue Nordin.
He ultimately committed to Penn State in July using a video set to Diddy’s “Coming Home,” in which Nordin steps out of a plane wearing a Nittany Lions windbreaker. Nordin said the clip—which generated plenty of headlines and social media attention—was produced by his friend. One of the main factors driving Nordin to make the “very, very tough decision” to choose Penn State was the coaching staff. “I have great relationships with every single coach on that staff, and my parents love the coaches,” Nordin says.
For Penn State, Nordin represents an important addition for reasons beyond his sheer talent. The Nittany Lions, hampered by the scholarship restrictions imposed as part of the sanctions in the Jerry Sandusky scandal, have not signed a kicker or punter since Sam Ficken in 2011. In the years since, Penn State has used walk-ons, like Julius, to fill out their special teams depth chart. The NCAA announced last September that it would restore the Nittany Lions’ full allotment of scholarships for the 2015 season, giving them more flexibility in recruiting.
"That's not the ideal situation," Penn State coach James Franklin said of his reliance on special teams walk-ons at a Coaches Caravan stop in May, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We don't have one scholarship invested in a specialist. Typically there's a handful—maybe five snappers, five kickers, five punters—in the country that get scholarships out of high school each year. By the time we got the job [in January 2014], those guys were already gone. Then last year, we still thought we were down five scholarships and by the time we got those scholarships, those guys were gone again. So we're going to have to get that fixed."
Franklin has made progress quickly. Not only did Penn State secure a commitment from Nordin, it also added Blake Gillikin, a three-star punter from The Westminster (Ga.) School. Gillikin is considered one of the nation’s top punters, a position in need of an upgrade for a team that has finished 125th, 117th and 116th, respectively, in the FBS in punting average the last three seasons.
If Gillikin doesn’t pan out, Nordin also is a highly regarded punter. He averaged around 41 yards per punt for Rockford last season and says he has focused over the past year on honing his technique. Nordin currently ranks fifth in Kornblue’s Fab 50 Punters list and is capable of, at the very least, competing at that position in addition to kicking field goals and handling kickoffs. “I don’t like to be called just a kicker,” Nordin says. “I want to be a multi-purpose guy, so a school doesn’t have to waste scholarships on a punter as well.”
For now, Penn State fans should temper their optimism about a special teams future with Nordin. He is still considering taking official visits and says Michigan continues to recruit him “extremely, extremely hard.” Nordin remains firm in his commitment to Penn State, but if the Wolverines keep winning and remain in contention for a Big Ten championship and College Football Playoff berth in Jim Harbaugh’s first season, the state’s flagship university could become a more intriguing option.
If Penn State can hang on to Nordin, it will shore up a position group it has not recruited effectively in recent years with one of the top specialist prospects in the country. The downside? Less airtime for the Big Toe.