Virtual tryouts offer NFL scouts chance to evaluate kickers during COVID

Ex-NFL kicker Nick Novak creates second chance for specialists
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SAN DIEGO -- Ali Mourtada always considered himself an underdog.

Mourtada grew up in Foxboro, Mass. Out of high school, he earned the starting kicking job at Division II Pace University and later attended Assumption College for grad school, where he served as the kickoff specialist.

“I always felt like I had potential,” Mourtada said. “Really, I just had a dream and I felt like I can do it.”

Mourtada took a leap of faith after college, moving to Arizona in 2013 to train. He leans on his departed friend and former Pace University teammate D.J. Henry for motivation and inspiration. Henry was shot and killed by police in New York on Oct. 17, 2010, an incident Mourtada witnessed.

“That’s when my life changed,” Mourtada said. “I always thought I wanted to play professional football, but once one of my good friend’s life was taken so quickly, it was a lot. And it put life into perspective. I was like, if I’m going to do this, I have to put my whole soul into this because I don’t know when life is going to be taken. That’s kind of been the driving factor.”

Mourtada’s been grinding for seven years trying to get a look. On this day, he’s the best kicker on the field among seven at Maranatha high school’s football field -- a small, private Christian school just north of San Diego.

Former NFL kicker Nick Novak started hosting weekly tryouts for kickers, punters and long snappers here, using Zoom technology for NFL scouts to watch them compete virtually.

So far, the weekly tryouts netted NFL jobs for J.J. Molson (Los Angeles Chargers practice squad), Tristan Vizcaino (Minnesota Vikings practice squad) and Giorgio Tavecchio (Tennessee Titans practice squad).

Punter Colton Schmidt also earned a tryout with the Las Vegas Raiders.

A 10-year NFL veteran who played for five different teams and spent time in the AAF, XFL and NFL Europe, the 39-year-old Novak offers first-hand experience of what it takes to grind through a Tuesday, NFL tryout and earn a job.

“It’s been a dream come true to help these free agents because I had 50-some workouts when I played,” Novak said. “A lot of guys aren’t getting that type of opportunity. So, 50 virtual tryouts, we can do that. If he goes 10-for-10 and kickoffs great and one coach sees that mission accomplished.

“The great thing about it is these guys think that there are 32 NFL teams watching every time, so it adds that feeling that you would get when you walk into an NFL facility working out, and you have the GM there, the owner is there sometimes, and everybody is watching. So, it helps them prepare for the moment when they do get an in-person workout.”

Chargers general manager Tom Telecsco said he regularly has a scout on his staff monitor the workouts live or check back to watch the recorded workouts each week. Telesco went on to say it helps his personnel staff take a large group of kickers and narrow them to a smaller group that they would want to bring in at some point.

“It’s a really good concept because it benefits both the player and the clubs,” Telesco said. “If you’re a kicker, rather than work out solo at whatever high school field you can find, you can go workout with a group of kickers, so they push each other. And still receive top-level instruction because I think Nick’s really good. And then for us, it’s really beneficial because we can view virtually, multiple kicking sessions.

“So, we can watch the prospects develop and improve, or not. And we can do this from the office without traveling, so it’s efficient and COVID safe. I’ve never been a proponent of you bring in a group of kickers on one day, and they all tryout, and then you pick whoever kicked the best on that day. I’d rather decide on a body of work, and if it’s a veteran that’s easy, but for a young kicker we don’t have that body of work. So, to get multiple looks at these guys through the course of a season that Nick gives us, it’s really beneficial.”

Ali Mourtada/Courtesy of Nick Novak

Ali Mourtada/Courtesy of Nick Novak

Mourtada, 30 attended his first minicamp last year with the Washington Football team; he also had a workout with the Cleveland Browns in 2017.

“You hear a lot of reasons why you’re not in (the NFL),” Mourtada said. “But no one is waking up and putting in the work for me. I want to get the most out of myself as a possibly can. These guys out here are ballers, and to compete with them is a pleasure. I appreciate them, but when I go home and train, it’s all focused on myself -- what’s the most I can get out of myself and where can I challenge myself to improve.

“I have to set the standard much higher for how I’m going to perform because I can’t leave doubt in the mind of anybody.”

Matt Ammendola also performed well during the tryout. Ammendola kicked at Oklahoma State for four seasons. Ammendola said he had discussions with Tampa Bay, Jacksonville and the New York Jets but didn’t get signed after the draft.

Matt Ammendola/USA Today

Matt Ammendola/USA Today

He traveled from Philadelphia to train with Novak for two weeks. Ammendola said if nothing works out, he’d consider moving to San Diego permanently to train because he feels like he’s performing well.

“I’ve been kicking in 32-degree weather and it’s nice to just wear shorts,” joked Ammendola. “It feels good to be out there. It’s a good for Coach Novak to just give me the opportunity to come out, train with these guys and compete. I’ve been working my butt off, training for the past six months and I’m just really looking for an opportunity.”