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April 21, 2017

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — As a junior on the football team at Woodberry Forest, Lester Coleman played wide receiver and tight end, and he was content in those roles. On the eve of his senior season, however, the Tigers unexpectedly found themselves without a punter.

Clint Alexander, then Woodberry Forest’s head coach, knew that Coleman’s brother, James, was a punter at the University of Virginia. And so Alexander came to the younger Coleman with a request.

“He said, `Hey, do you think you can work with your brother a couple times and punt for us this fall?’ ” Lester Coleman recalled. “And that’s what happened, and then I found myself here.”

After graduating from Woodberry in 2013, Coleman joined the program at UVA as a recruited walk-on. He redshirted in 2014 and did not play in any games in the next two seasons, when the Cavaliers’ punter was Nicholas Conte. But now, as the Cavaliers progress through their second spring under head coach Bronco Mendenhall, Coleman has emerged as a serious candidate to succeed Conte, who made the All-ACC first team last season, as the starting punter.

“It’s been fun to kind of rise to the occasion,” Coleman said. “When you come as a walk-on player this is the opportunity you dream of, and it’s about taking advantage of it and really just getting out there, relaxing and doing the best I can.”

Kelly Poppinga, Virginia’s special teams coordinator, didn’t know exactly what to expect from the 6-5, 225-pound Coleman heading into spring practice, which concludes April 29 with the annual Spring Football Festival at Scott Stadium.

“But I would say Lester has shown me that he’s for sure in the running for the chance to be the starting punter next year,” Poppinga said. “He’s worked really, really hard in the offseason. Major improvements.”

Coleman is one of two punters on the Wahoos’ spring roster, along with Nash Griffin, a rising sophomore from Indianapolis. (Griffin’s classmates at Lawrence Central High included Kyle Guy, now on the men’s basketball team at UVA.)

“I think Lester’s distanced himself from Nash, just in his consistency with hang time and with the net of the punt and the direction of the punt,” Poppinga said Wednesday.

“He’s been a pleasant surprise. Even in our staff meeting this morning, Coach Mendenhall was like, `That guy has a chance to be our punter.’ “

James Coleman backed up Alec Vozenilek in 2013 and ’14 and Conte in ’15. After graduating from UVA last spring with a bachelor’s in environmental sciences, he transferred to Western Michigan for his final season of eligibility. Last fall, Coleman averaged 40.3 yards per punt for a WMU team that finished 13-1.

“It would have been awesome for him to play and everything at UVA to work out,” Lester said, “but he got his degree and he’s a huge Cavalier [fan].”

An economics major, Lester won’t be the only member of his family at the University in 2017-18. His sister, Anne Parker, a senior at Carlisle School in Martinsville, will enroll at UVA this summer.

Born and raised in Martinsville, Lester Coleman spent his freshman and sophomore years at Carlisle, from which his brother graduated in 2012, before transferring to Woodberry Forest, a boarding school in Madison County. (The Cavaliers’ incoming recruits include three Woodberry standouts: Lindell Stone, John Kirven and Terrell Jana.)

“I just wanted to do something different,” Coleman said.

He hasn’t played in a game since 2013, his final season at Woodberry, but practice has helped Coleman improve dramatically as a punter.

“It’s night and day,” he said.

Conte, who expects to sign a free-agent deal with an NFL team if he’s not drafted next week, has been a regular at UVA practices this spring. Not surprisingly, Coleman considers Conte as a mentor.

“I would say I really in a sense tried to model my punting stroke after his, especially this past season being his backup,” Coleman said. “We were obviously in meetings together and in constant communication, constantly talking things over. I’ve been trying to position myself more like him in the way he holds the ball, the way he drops it, and the way he accelerates through it.”

As the only punters on the roster this spring, Coleman and Griffin have stayed busy in practice. That should benefit them, Conte said, as well as the team.

“The more reps you get with your long-snapper and your line, the better,” Conte said. “It’s very helpful, just being able to get out there on the field, knowing who’s with you and what their strengths and weaknesses are and just kind of learning each other’s patterns.

“When you’re splitting reps with three or four guys, you might only get one or two punts a day, and you’ve really got to make those count. And you don’t really get in a rhythm as easily. But when you’re taking five to 10 to 15 reps with the same long-snapper and the same group, it really pays off.”

Griffin is the only place-kicker on the Cavaliers’ spring roster, but Brian Delaney, a heralded recruit from Westfield High School in Northern Virginia, will provide competition when he arrives in Charlottesville this summer. Poppinga said he expects two walk-on kickers to join the program as well.

Delaney is also a talented punter who figures to challenge Coleman for the starting job.

“It’s going to be a good competition,” Poppinga said. “It’ll be fun.”

Conte, who was a senior at Roanoke’s Patrick Henry High School in 2011, did not appear in a game at UVA until 2015. He knows well how challenging the transition from high school to college can be for a punter.

“The speed of the game is way different,” he said. “Every freshman comes in thinking it’s going to be pretty similar to high school, but the size of the guys is way different than what you’re used to, the speed of the game is way different, and then what the coaches are asking you to do is different.

“In high school there’s a lot more leeway for error. You can hit a ball and not turn it over. You can hit it in the wrong direction, and the returners aren’t smart enough sometimes to know to run up and get the ball. In college, I’ve played against guys like [former North Carolina star] Ryan Switzer, and you can’t make those mistakes, because they’ll exploit you for it, and you’ll see them run past you for a touchdown, which luckily we never had happen on my watch.”

Punters must get the ball off much faster in college than in high school, Conte said, and “that speed alone can throw off your entire mechanics. If you’re used to going so slow and having time to think about it and do it, and then you’re forced into a situation where you’ve got some pretty big dudes running at you and you’ve got to get it off quick, your mechanics might go out the door if you’re not fundamental with it.”

UVA’s punters, place-kickers, long-snappers and holders like to call themselves Team Kick, and Coleman has multiple roles on that unit. After backing up Matt Johns last season, he’s taken over as the holder on extra points and field goals. Griffin holds too.

“I always like punters [to be holders too], because they’re able to work with [kickers] more,” Poppinga said. “They’re with them all throughout practice.

“It always used to be the backup quarterback, but now I think everybody would rather have a punter do it, because they can practice it so much more, because the snapper, the punter and the kicker are all together during practice.”

Whether it’s as a punter or a holder — or both — Coleman is likely to make his UVA debut in the fall. That would make a fantastic experience even better for him.

“This was truthfully my dream school,” Coleman said. “This was where I wanted to go regardless of football. It just so happened that football also worked out, which was a huge plus.”

“I can’t express how much I love not only this football program, but the University of Virginia.”

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