By Jeff White (email@example.com)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — For months and months, the University of Virginia’s new football coaches waited, not knowing exactly how punter Nicholas Conte would fit into the program they were building.
They’d watched film of Conte from 2015, when he earned All-ACC honorable mention, so they knew he had a strong right leg. But they weren’t able to see him kick in person until this summer, and that tested their patience and his.
“It was kind of scary, honestly,” Conte recalled Monday, “just because you have a new coaching staff coming in — you’ve got a new head coach, new position coaches — and the only thing they can go off is film, and you really want to show `em what you can do, and your body’s just not letting you.”
Conte, a graduate student in UVA’s Curry School of Education, started training in January, alongside his teammates, in director of football performance Frank Wintrich’s offseason conditioning program. But Conte hurt his right hamstring shortly before the start of spring practice, and the injury proved troublesome.
“It kept recurring throughout spring ball,” Conte said, “so I was never really able to get back up to [speed].”
He missed all of spring practice and continued to have problems early in the summer. Finally, about two weeks before the start of the Wahoos’ first training camp under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Conte was healthy enough to pass his tempo run, which meant he was cleared to practice.
“So I cut it close,” Conte said.
Throughout Conte’s long rehab, Mendenhall, special-teams coordinator Kelly Poppinga and graduate assistant Kyle Visciglia, who works with the Cavaliers’ specialists, supported him.
“It was scary for a little bit,” Conte said, “but they wanted to make sure I was healthy, and once I got healthy they gave me the opportunity to show what I had and to compete, and it worked out.”
Visciglia knew that Conte, who trains in the offseason with a punting coach, Gary Zauner, took his craft seriously. Visciglia said he also saw “just how hard [Conte] worked coming back. That’s really tough with a hamstring, and he pushed through all those things.”
Even when the 6-3, 225-pound Conte was limited physically, Visciglia said, he “was so focused on coming back, and he really, really honed in on the little technique things that I think are paying dividends right now.”
Virginia (1-3 overall) opens ACC play Saturday against Duke (2-2, 0-1) at 12:30 p.m. in Durham, N.C. The Cavaliers are coming off their first victory, a 49-35 defeat of Central Michigan at Scott Stadium.
“The win was huge,” Conte said. “This past weekend was awesome, getting that win and just kind of feeling a little momentum shift for us.”
Through four games, Conte ranks third in the ACC with an average of 44.2 yards per punt. UVA’s opponents have exactly 3 yards on punt returns.
“Nick Conte continues to be a weapon for us,” Mendenhall said.
This is Conte’s second year as the Cavaliers’ punter, and he has a career average of 44.5 yards per kick. That’s better than the school record (43.3) set by Russ Henderson in the 1970s.
A graduate of Patrick Henry High in Roanoke, Conte said he came into the season with something to prove to his coaches, “especially since they stuck with me through that whole time. I really wanted to show them that, 1, I’ve been working really hard and, 2, I’m better than the punter they saw on film from last year and that I’ve really worked to improve.”
His mental focus is sharper, Conte said, and his summer work with Zauner, who splits time between Arizona and Wisconsin, has improved his punting mechanics. He also credits the Cavaliers’ staff, most of which was at BYU with Mendenhall last season.
“I love these coaches,” Conte said. “They definitely stand behind me. In terms of the special-teams approach, they’ve tailored the punt team around me a little bit more, so it’s more toward my strengths and what I can do to help out the team.
“Last year we did a lot more rugby-style [punting], and that’s just not something I’ve always loved to do. I’m prepared to do it, but I’ve worked on the straight-on type approach.
“These coaches really understand what my strengths are. They’ve been more diligent about learning about me and how I learn, and my strengths and my weaknesses and our entire punt team’s strengths and weaknesses, everybody on the line in front of me who’s protecting and covering. We all work really well together. It’s worked out so far. Our guys covering have done an amazing job.”
BYU’s punter last season was a rugby player from New Zealand, Visciglia said, “so we had shifted a lot of our stuff to rugby-style punting. But the way Coach Mendenhall is — and you’ll see it on offense and defense — we play to our players’ strengths, and when you have one of the best punters in the country [in Conte], you go with what he’s good at. So that’s what we’ve done. We’ve organized our punt team in that way, to really show off his strengths, and it’s paid off so far.”
It helps, too, Conte said, that long-snapper Richard Burney has excelled in a new role season. Zach Bradshaw, a starting inside linebacker, snaps on field goals and extra points, and Burney handles the duties on punts.
Burney is a 6-4, 245-pound redshirt freshman whose primary position is tight end, and he ran in a 2-point conversion against Central Michigan.
“He’s been absolutely amazing,” Conte said. “He’s put the ball right where I want it every single time, for the most part, and it’s really consistent. He and I have a good vibe together, just because I trust him and he trusts me. We know what’s going to happen, and it’s really comfortable.”
What makes Conte’s performance most remarkable, perhaps, is that he taught himself to punt by watching YouTube videos. He didn’t play football until his senior year at Patrick Henry, where he earned three letters in lacrosse and one in swimming.
He’s now on scholarship, but Conte came to UVA as a recruited walk-on. He redshirted in 2012 and didn’t play in ’13 or ’14, either, when he backed up Alec Vozenilek.
“It was a trying experience,” Conte said, “but looking back I was able to spend that time working on my own craft and building up. I only played one year of high school, and it was a huge transition [to college football] for me, because I’d never done it. I played lacrosse, and it’s completely different. And then college is a huge step again, and having guys like Voz in front of me to kind of show me the way helped out.
“I definitely would have liked to have played more, but I’m happy with the way things have turned out.”
Conte graduated in May with a bachelor’s degree in human biology. He’s now pursuing a master’s in higher education, with a focus on athletic administration, after which he plans to continue his education.
“Med school has always been the goal,” said Conte, whose father is a lawyer in Roanoke, “but I’ve actually started thinking about business school as well, so it’s one of the two at the moment.”
He’s on track to earn his master’s from the Curry School next spring, though that plan could change.
“Obviously the NFL comes first if [that’s an option],” Conte said. “That’s an opportunity that you can’t really push off, because very few people get it and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But if things don’t work out there, I’m definitely going to finish my master’s and head off to medical school or to business school.”
Coaching players as intelligent at Conte, Visciglia said, can be “a blessing and a curse. Sometimes they overthink it a little bit, but again, Nick’s really, really good with technique, and we just to have let him cut it loose and have fun and go kick the football sometimes.
“I can deal with all the other stuff, as long as you care about the game and care about your craft, and he’s taken his craft and really, really tried to master it, and that’s what makes him so good.”