Sept. 20, 2012
CHARLOTTESVILLE -- When he joined the University of Virginia football team in 2010, Alec Vozenilek did so knowing that kicking specialists are often viewed critically by players for whom contact is a regular part of practice and games.
Vozenilek was a recruited walk-on from St. Christopher's, a school in Richmond's West End not known for turning out major-college football players, and he was determined to shatter any stereotypes the other Cavaliers might have had about him.
"That was a big thing for me coming in, just earning the respect of my teammates," said Vozenilek, who in addition to handling all the kicking duties started at safety and played some wide receiver for St. Christopher's.
"Guys complain about Team Kick not doing anything at practice and stuff like that. It's kind of just the reputation you get as a kicker. But I definitely made that a goal of mine: to be noticed in the offseason as a guy that works hard and can hang with anyone in the weight room, whether it's linemen or running backs, Olympic lifts or power lifts."
At 5-10, 190 pounds, Vozenilek is not one of the bigger players in head coach Mike London's program, but his strength belies his stature. It would be insufficent to say he's strong for a punter.
"He's strong, period," said Evan Marcus, who oversees strength and conditioning for the football team.
St. Christopher's has two full-time strength coaches with sterling credentials -- Bob Blanton and Shad Pospahala -- and Vozenilek took full advantage of their expertise.
"Alec was the kind of athlete that every coach wished he could duplicate," said Pospahala, who formerly worked at UVa.
"Because of this, he was asked to play on many teams, and during most seasons he participated in at least two sports -- not all school-sponsored. At the same time, he was so dedicated to the strength-and-conditioning program that I don't remember him ever missing a day, even with all of his other athletic commitments."
At the end of his senior year, Vozenilek received the strength-and-conditioning award given out annually at St. Christopher's, and his work ethic hasn't waned at Virginia. What pleases UVa's football coaches most, though, is not Vozenilek's prowess in the weight room. It's the strength of his right leg and the consistency of his punting.
In his first season as a starter, Vozenilek (pronounced voe-zin-ill-eck) is averaging 44.4 yards per punt for UVa (2-1), which meets No. 17 TCU (2-0) on Saturday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas. He ranks third in the ACC behind Duke's Will Monday (45.6) and Boston College's Gerald Levano (45.3).
"He's doing a great job for us, and hopefully it'll continue on," special-teams coordinator Anthony Poindexter said this week.
Vozenilek redshirted in 2010, Jimmy Howell's third season as Virginia's starting punter. He didn't play, either, in 2011, when Howell was a senior, but Vozenilek came out of spring practice this year as the team's No. 1 punter and has no intention of relinquishing the job.
His first punt in a college game -- Sept. 1 against the University of Richmond -- traveled only 35 yards at Scott Stadium. But his next punt was a 51-yarder, and he ended the opener, a 43-19 romp by UVa, with a 41.3-yard average.
A week later, again at home, Vozenilek averaged 42.5 yards on four punts in Virginia's 17-16 win over Penn State. Then came his first road game. UVa flopped at Georgia Tech, losing 56-20, but Vozenilek averaged 47.8 yards on his five punts, a performance that led the coaching staff to honor him as special-teams player of the game.
The players who did the kicking for UVa last season -- Howell, Chris Hinkebein and Robert Randolph -- were seniors, and nobody was sure how their replacements would perform. So far, Vozenilek, redshirt freshman Ian Frye and junior Drew Jarrett, the most visible members of the special-teams group that calls itself Team Kick, have been terrific.
Of Frye's 15 kickoffs this season, 10 have been touchbacks. Jarrett, who wasn't part of the team in 2011, is 3 for 3 on field goals and 9 for 9 on extra points. Jarrett came into the season not having kicked for the Wahoos in a game since 2009.
"They've risen to the occasion so far through three games, and hopefully we can continue on," Poindexter said. "We knew we had a veteran guy in Jarrett, so I kind of expected it of him ... But Frye's been a surprise so far, and Vozey's been a surprise so far, so hopefully they can continue.
"We knew they had talent. It's just putting them in the game and actually executing that's the part you have to wait and see."
Poindexter said he worried much less about Vozenilek's punting than about the protection in front him. Howell had three punts blocked in 2011, and the coaching staff tinkered with the protection schemes in the offseason.
In Howell's defense, UVa " did a lot of that rugby-style punting with him, because we were concerned about a couple issues protection-wise," Poindexter said. "But we're trying to let Alec punt it and let it rip, and right now he's been doing a great job for us."
Vozenilek's assessment of Team Kick's performance?
"I think the three of us have done a pretty good job so far, but as kickers we always say, `Forget about it, you haven't done anything,' " he said. "We've got a big game coming up this week, and we've got to continue to be consistent like that, because we only have four, five, six opportunities a game to do what we have to do."
Unlike many college punters and kickers, Vozenilek is essentially self-taught.
"I do not have a kicking coach," he said. "I've basically worked with Rob, Jimmy and Hink the past two years and just learned from them, and also the freshmen that came in [this year]. We all just help each other out. But all those guys had coaches."
Vozenilek comes from an athletic family. His parents were tennis players in college, his mother at North Carolina and his father at Pacific Lutheran. Vozenilek has four siblings, and one of his brothers, Rob, is a second-year student at UVa who was a walk-on guard on Tony Bennett's basketball team in 2011-12.
At St. Christopher's, Vozenilek played, at various times, football, soccer, basketball and lacrosse. He also swam for the Saints.
His grandfather Thomas Towers was a UVa alumnus with whom Vozenilek attended football games at Scott Stadium and basketball games at University Hall. Still, when it came time for him to start making college plans, Vozenilek recalled, "I had no idea what I was doing. Basketball was really the sport that I really loved and wanted to play in college. And then my junior year I was like, `Wow, football is going really well, I maybe can play that too.' "
He began looking at Division III schools where he might be able to play football and basketball. He also started to hear from Football Championship Division schools, such as VMI, William & Mary and Richmond, that were intrigued by his kicking and punting skills.
London was then the head coach at UR. His staff at included Jeff Hanson, who oversaw Vozenilek's recruitment. In December 2009, however, London accepted the head job at UVa, and Hanson was among the assistants who followed their boss from Richmond to Charlottesville.
In early 2010, Vozenilek recalled, the Cavaliers "called me and told me they wanted to come with them. Getting that phone call was awesome."
His mother, the former Betty Baugh Harrison, is a veterinarian, and Vozenilek inherited her interest in and love for animals. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hammered the Gulf Coast, Vozenilek accompanied his mother to New Orleans to help rescue animals and provide medical treatment for them. They spent about six days there.
"It was a month after Katrina hit, so the place was a complete disaster," Vozenilek said. "Most people had fled or been evacuated."
They returned to Virginia with a horse trailer, inside of which, in cages, were about 125 animals that had been rescued in New Orleans -- mostly dogs and cats -- and found homes for them in the Richmond area.
"It was something I'd never really done before," Vozenilek said, "and it was something my mom and I did together, which was great for us, just building a good relationship there."
He's no longer interested in becoming a vet, Vozenilek said, but "when I was young I had tons of reptiles and animals and stuff. I had my own little petting zoo business I did for kids' birthday parties. I've kind of passed it down to my little brother."
He has some fish in the Charlottesville apartment he shares with his cousin George Corwin, also a third-year student at UVa, but nothing as exotic as the ball python Vozenilek kept in his apartment last year.
"I thought about bringing it to the McCue Center, but decided not to," he said, smiling. "A lot of people are scared of snakes."
At St. Christopher's, Vozenilek's teammates in football and lacrosse included Thompson Brown, a close friend and workout partner who joined him at UVa last year. Brown arrived on a football scholarship but left the program after the 2011 season. He has since joined Virginia's lacrosse team.
Vozenilek also knew Jake McGee in high school. McGee, a redshirt sophomore tight end with game-breaking ability, attended another West End school, Collegiate.
At rival St. Christopher's, they were all too familiar with the 6-5 McGee.
"People thought Jake was a stud athlete," Vozenilek said. "They thought that he had a lot of confidence, and he won games, whether it was in football or basketball. We would always game-plan around him for both sports. We tried to shut him down in basketball, but he's so big, he can pull anyone out and post anyone up."
Rivals no more, McGee and Vozenilek have emerged as two of the most compelling stories at UVa this season.
For Vozenilek, college football has "definitely been everything I thought it would be, and more," he said. "Just building the relationships with the staff, the players on the team, it's almost like McCue's your second home. Working out here in the summer and doing all that type of stuff, it's been a great experience."
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A 1985 graduate of UVA, White worked at the Richmond Times-Dispatch until July 2009. He was honored six times as the state's Sportswriter of the Year.
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