Most draft analysts don’t evaluate specialists. Even though at least one kicker, punter, and long snapper get drafted each year, it’s hard to get reliable evaluations on positions that seem so cut and dry. Make the kick, flip the field, snap the ball. Yet most of the very best pro specialists were not among the cream of the crop in college. 4 kickers were drafted in 2012, the first going as high as the 5th round, yet none of them hold a candle to Justin Tucker, who was undrafted.
This season, the punter class may mirror that 2012 kicker class. Most of the attention has gone to San Diego State nuclear weapon Matt Araiza, but Penn State’s Jordan Stout and Georgia’s Jake Camarda are not far behind. All 3 could be drafted by the end of the sixth round. If you’re looking for a candidate for this year’s punter version of Justin Tucker, let me direct your attention to Miami.
No, not Miami, Florida, at least not yet. Miami, Oklahoma; a town of 13,000 people and the site of Northeastern Oklahoma A&M, a junior college program. That’s where the Tommy Heatherly story begins.
Miami to Miami
Heatherly grew up 20 minutes south of Miami (My-AM-uh) in nearby Grove, hometown of Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman and location of a professional bass fishing tournament lake. At Grove High, Heatherly was the kicker, punter, and kickoff man, but “honestly wasn’t good, as much as [he] wanted to be”. With no offers coming out of high school, the then-175 pounder traveled to Miami and walked on. As a 190 pound freshman, coaches told him he was “a little too immature to take over the punting duties”, so he primarily was the kickoff and field goal man. After 4 games, Heatherly was benched as the field goal kicker, leaving him with just kickoff duties.
At its core, kicking and punting are just as much about mental toughness as they are about putting your foot to the ball. Fans usually only remember your name if you’re the guy that messed up, and with that negative attention comes loads of criticism. Keeping yourself afloat during those times is what separates the greats from the goods. At NEO, Heatherly says “I had gained a lot of weight being kinda…mentally messed up by not starting. I was always kinda the guy in high school, the go-to guy for all 3 duties.” By the end of his freshman season, that mental toll had manifested as nearly 125 pounds of weight gain, as Heatherly stood at 315.
“You could call it a redshirt year, because I wasted that year.”
But going into year 2, Grove’s finest says seeing someone else start over him motivated him, as did the brotherhood of going through JUCO. D1 was never the goal – being the best he could for his team was.
Over in the more famous Miami, Florida International needed a punter. They wanted a different guy, the punter over at Tyler JUCO in Texas. But while looking over film for the Apache, the Panthers coaching staff caught one rep of some kid from NEO. At the time, Heatherly’s journey seemed destined to continue at FCS Houston Baptist, but FIU head coach Butch Davis had other plans. Davis’ father coached at Grove High back in the 70s, and that familiarity ultimately helped land Heatherly, now 263 pounds after losing and then regaining some weight due to what he says was “complacency”.
As a small town kid who played JUCO in a small town, the culture shock of going to Miami hit Heatherly hard at first. His first game as a Panther featured two shanked punts and a benching with the most fans in a stadium he’d ever seen. The Monday after, Heatherly sat down with Davis to hash out any doubts that may have arisen. After keeping the job in practice, he finished the 2019 season with 54 punts for an average of 43 yards and a long of 68, with 15 downed inside the 20 to just 4 touchbacks. The average increased to 44.4 in 2020, then to 47.1 in 2021.
As a super senior this past season, Heatherly’s 47.1 average was 8th best in the nation, and he was summarily rewarded by being named the C-USA Special Teams Player of the Year. With an invite to the Hula Bowl in hand, Heatherly says: “I put on a decent week of practice there. I wouldn’t consider it my best.” Next up was the Shrine Bowl, where duels with Colorado State’s Ryan Stonehouse “increased my motivation to really hang some up there. It was great to go out there and have to match somebody.” With linebackers serving as makeshift long snappers on day one while the staff in Vegas scrambled to get a second snapper on hand, the former Panther says one team scout praised him for his positivity in an adverse situation.
Despite the accolades, the compliments from scouts, and film that shows just how big his leg is, Heatherly didn’t receive an NFL Combine invite. At his pro day later this month, he says his plan is to chart his workout the same way they do at the Combine, so that teams can directly compare his results to those that were in Indianapolis.
Contrary to popular belief, punters have more than one kick in their toolbox. Ravens punter Sam Koch has been said to have up to 10 different punts, for example. Heatherly says he has two traditional American-style punts: the laser, which he calls the “Matt Araiza style”, and the hangtime spiral, which he’s clocked a 5.2 to 5.3 hangtime with. There’s also the Aussie-style laser, a 3.9 to 4.3 hang aimed at the corners. Those often feature what Heatherly calls the “helicopter style”, a slight tilt of the ball before he boots it that results in a sideways bounce to keep it out of the end zone. The Aussie-style traditional is a 4.7 to 4.8 hang, meant to call the returner’s bluff – either fair catch it, or let it go over their heads and hope it bounces into the end zone. Heatherly says he knows he has it in his bag to have that ball bounce back.
Only one of Heatherly’s punts was blocked in his three seasons, and he says that one instance was completely on him. “I had too long of a step, too long of an approach. We got lucky and got a 25-yard net out of it.” But most moments were brilliant. In one game against Middle Tennessee, Heatherly breaks down his thought process to hit a directional right punt for a 60+ yard net:
Weight Room Warrior
If you scroll through Heatherly’s social media feeds, it’s all business. Nearly every post is strictly about football. Off the field, he says his main hobby is weightlifting, with credit to FIU strength coach Andreu Swasey and former roommate and FIU TE Jackson McDonald for getting him obsessed with “chasing the pump”.
As for the Instagram, Heatherly says: “My theory on how to get better and focus on yourself is work in silence. Somebody compliments you, you just take it and keep working. I’m never happy with how far I’ve come as far as my physical appearance. I still look in the mirror and see the fat, 300 pound kicker from NEO or the skinny, no-arm all-leg kid in high school.”
For some, chasing that satisfaction results in a mountaintop syndrome. You reach one milestone and go straight to chasing the next one without taking the time to appreciate the fact that you hit your original goal. But for Heatherly, that mountaintop is motivation: “On some of my best days, I’m still not happy with it, just because I know I can do better.” It’s the same with punting: he hits a 5.6 second hangtime and feels like he should’ve hit 5.8. That mindset comes from former FIU special teams coordinator James Vollono, who Heatherly mentioned multiple times as a big influence on him to take football and his approach to it more seriously. Vollono had a saying: “It’s never as good as it seems, but it’s never as bad as it seems.”
Heatherly’s preferred social media is TikTok, where he mostly posts kicking videos. He’s built a following of nearly 54,000 people, many of whom he says are high school kickers.
That presence has inspired Heatherly to consider coaching – he’s already been training the past two kickers to come through Grove. He tells me his aspirations are to come home to the small town after his NFL career winds down and be a strength and conditioning coach while running the special teams. He also wants to coach high school baseball, a sport he played his whole life.
Aside from coaching, Heatherly wants to establish a kicking camp for kids in the 4-state area. Grove is near the eastern border of Oklahoma, with Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas all close by. Most camps are in Texas, maybe Kansas City if you’re lucky, which presents a pretty high barrier to entry for the next Heatherly. Heatherly’s roommate and best friend at NEO, Cortland Weaver, is now the special teams coach in Grove, and the former Golden Norsemen plan to start up the camps together when the time is right.
Chasing the Pros
With his college career in the rearview mirror, Heatherly says “I really think that junior college helped me get a sense of what it actually takes to be ‘the guy’.” He’s spent the offseason keeping his leg warm while learning to hold, a skill he never picked up because of his kicking prowess. Heatherly credits Wake Forest’s Nick Sciba and South Carolina’s Parker White for giving him a crash course in holding: “It was nice to be able to have guys who could critique me, tell me everything I did wrong, everything I did right. Neither one of them held up on me. They let me know if I screwed up, and I like that.” In training, he’s been taking 100 snaps a day – lefty and righty. But for now, he says he’s trying to live in today. “I don’t wanna look at the draft, I don’t wanna think about it. I don’t think about other punters – who’s gonna get picked up? – I’m worried about myself, today.”
Heatherly says he’s met with close to half the teams in the league, but knows any opportunities will likely come via signing as a UDFA. His plan is to “play until [he] can’t walk anymore”. You can tell from speaking with him that he loves football, and he reiterated multiple times that the sport isn’t about the money for him – it’s just what he loves.
Come late April, whether he’s worried about it or not, Heatherly will likely watch three or four punters have their name called while he and his agent work the phones to negotiate a UDFA deal. That’ll mean a competition will be in order, and probably a fierce one. But he says he’s grown to like that tension, the tightness in his chest as he watches a rival gear up, wondering what he’s gonna throw down for Heatherly to match.
I’m not saying Heatherly will be the punting equivalent to Justin Tucker. But I will say one thing after speaking to him for nearly an hour and a half.
After all the work he’s put in to even get to this point, I’m willing to stake my claim that he’ll be one of the 32 punters to suit up as a starter in September’s season openers.
Follow Tommy on Twitter @50_tommy and Alex on Twitter @alexkatson.