Most Valuable Punter

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Brad Maynard, you'll have to excuse Nick Harris. When Harris was just a freshman at Cal back in 1996, he chanced upon an issue of Playboy that had your photo in it - the group photo of the magazine's preseason All-America picks.

His eyes glanced over the precocious collegiate stars, and in the lower right hand corner, he saw your face.

Better yet, he saw his face.

Like any child with a dream, he took to the scissors and extracted your face from the photo, carefully replacing it with his own.

Call it a leap of faith, even a twinge of arrogance, but something told him that one day, it would be him standing there, among the nation's elite players.

Never underestimate a punter's intuition.

Five years, his own Playboy All-American photo shoot, and a Cal degree later, Nick Harris has cemented himself as the best punter to ever grace Memorial Stadium.

Just don't tell him that.

"It's strange because all I do is kick a ball," Harris says of the publicity he's generated. "I just fit into my role on the team well. If the offense does well, and I don't have to do well, that's fine."

But the offense hasn't been doing well, and the Bears have struggled the last few years to consistently put points on the board. That means that Harris has become one of the Bears' most important players, even if he's only on the field for a fraction of the game.

"When the offense has struggled, the silver lining at the end of a drive that stops is that Nick's been able to give us field position back," says Cal head coach Tom Holmoe.

Harris' play on the field has been nothing short of exemplary. He led the nation in average yards per punt at one time last year, and finished with the seventh-best average.

Heading into tomorrow's game against Washington State, he is just 48 punts and 1,050 yards away from setting the new NCAA career records for total punts and punt yardage.

But it's juggling his resume off the field that makes his status even more impressive.

A graduate from Cal with a degree in American Studies, Harris is currently enrolled in the university's Graduate School of Education. His Language and Literacy program there focuses on teaching athletes how to succeed academically.

As part of his coursework, Harris is a graduate student instructor for Education 75, and the assistant director of SATSA, a mentoring program involving Cal football players and students from Berkeley High School.

"The Berkeley High kids had a problem with being ineligible and the program was set up to combat that," says Harris. "The theory is that Cal athletes are pretty in tune with balancing athletics and academics, and they could teach kids how to do the same."

Teaching and football have now become almost synonymous with Harris. He's taken it upon himself to show younger players, such as backup punter and placekicker Tyler Fredrickson, the skills and swagger necessary for success - something he learned from former athlete Ryan Longwell.

"(The coaches) said 'You're getting to redshirt under Longwell, so sit back, relax, learn from him, and get ready to play next year," says Harris. "I learned from his demeanor, how he handled stuff, just so I knew what it was I was supposed to be doing besides punting."

Longwell was a winner, as evidenced by his longetivity in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers. It's that attitude Harris is hoping to pass along.

"I look at the kind of person he is, the strides he takes, and it's so commendable," says Fredrickson. "Not only am I trying to take on his football persona, but his attitude and work ethic.

"To see him up there representing us as a captain is great. The coaches pick four or five captains every week, and it's not like they run out of captains so they pick him. Nick was up there the first or second week, and it's because of what he does."

Against Illinois two weeks ago, Harris placed 10 of his 12 punts inside the Illinois 20-yard line, and five inside the 5-yard line. Last week in Fresno, his first two punts landed inside the Bulldogs' 5.

But the accuracy of the kicks hasn't come without cost. Punting from your opponent's own 35-yard line doesn't bode well for one of the most important statistics to kickers - average yards per punt. Harris was in the top-10 in the nation last year, but through three games this season, he stands at 39.5 yards per punt.

Yet no one associated with the team is worried.

"When it comes down to it, football scouts know exactly what's going on," Fredrickson says. "Twenty or 30 years ago, we couldn't pick up a tape of Nick's practice (and see what he does). Not only does he boom kicks, he has pinpoint accuracy. It hurts his average, but coaches need that kind of accuracy."

Says Holmoe: "He might get excluded from an All-America team because voters will see his average."

He's just not likely to be left off an NFL roster.

"I don't want to jinx myself," says Harris on a professional career. "My whole point is to keep playing football. It's enjoyable and I like doing it. If the NFL is the way to keep doing it, so be it."

Not words you'd expect to hear from one of the best players in college football. Then again, there's a lot unusual when the best player on the team is the punter.


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