Matt Araiza Is Out to Change the Way the NFL Views Punters

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterApril 18, 2022

San Diego State kicker Matt Araiza (01) looks on at the NFL football scouting combine in Indianapolis, Sunday, March 6, 2022. (AP Photo/Steve Luciano)
Steve Luciano/Associated Press

He does it not for the fame or the nickname or even the football fortune that is suddenly within his grasp. No, Matt Araiza does what he does—bashing footballs into the stratosphere, defying the laws of gravity—in search of that one indescribable moment.

You see, the most prolific college football punter in recent memory, perhaps ever, doesn't know when he will uncork a punt that will travel more than 80 magnificent yards—a feat he accomplished in consecutive weeks last fall.

He can't really feel it when he does. Not when he catches it just right.

The ball erupts upward and outward, rising above the stadium into the clouds, disappearing into the great beyond. And then…it doesn't stop. In that suspended moment, Araiza simply listens for a particular sound.

"My favorite thing in all of this is when I hear every single person in the stadium gasp at once," Araiza says. "That is why I do what I do. It's the most amazing feeling in the world."

Except, Araiza doesn't just punt. The winner of the Ray Guy Award, the honor given to the nation's top punter, also blasted field goals and kickoffs for San Diego State last fall, all at an incredibly high level.

In college, it's rare for one player to share multiple specialized roles. It's even rarer in the NFL, where few have tried and even fewer have succeeded. But if all goes right, Araiza might just explode that paradigm.

Punt God, a nickname Araiza was given last fall, is coming soon to a Sunday near you. And with the NFL draft barreling down, there is a bubbling curiosity regarding how long he—and we—will have to wait to hear his name called.

"We haven't seen a guy with his ability to consistently change the field in a long time," one NFL scout says.

Whichever team becomes his, it will welcome a specialist who has captivated the sport—one with a cult-like following and a left leg capable of conquering the entire length of a football field in a single blast.

Denis Poroy/Associated Press

Technically, Araiza isn't done being a college student just yet. In between private workouts and a trip to Indianapolis for the NFL combine, he's still finishing up his degree at San Diego State.

While many soon-to-be-draftees are refining what their new lifestyle will look like in the months ahead, Araiza, who is an interdisciplinary studies major, is taking three econ classes and one statistics class.

"It's not as bad as it sounds," he assures. At the very least, he's found a new rhythm in preparing for the NFL while still attending classes five days a week.

On May 15, a few weeks after his professional destination is made clear, Araiza will graduate and walk before truly entering the next chapter of his life.

That next chapter could have waited. With collegiate eligibility remaining, Araiza could've returned to San Diego State, made decent money with now-legal NIL sponsorships and punted his way to more collegiate records before going pro in 2023.

But after receiving enough positive feedback from the NFL regarding his prospects of being selected, Araiza declared.

"Being drafted as a specialist is so rare," Araiza says. "Plus, I'm getting my degree. What was I going to do? Raise it by a couple of picks?"

Last year, Araiza broke the NCAA record when he averaged 51.19 yards per punt. His 39 punts of 50 yards or greater and 18 punts of 60 yards or more were also NCAA records.

"There were a couple of them that just kept going," San Diego State head coach Brady Hoke says. "You expected them to start coming down, and they just stayed in the air. The one at Air Force really stands out."

It wasn't just Air Force. In late October, the week before the Aztecs played the Falcons, Araiza booted a punt 86 yards against San Jose State.

Standing in his own end zone, Araiza launched the ball over the returner's head. It then ricocheted forward before being downed inside the 5-yard line, covering almost the entirety of the field. Araiza also connected on a 53-yard field goal, steering San Diego State to a double-overtime win.

A week later, Araiza nearly matched his previous effort. Against Air Force, Araiza delivered an 81-yard punt and made both of his field goals—including a 51-yarder. San Diego State grinded out another six-point win.

It was one of six single-digit wins the Aztecs delivered last fall while finishing the year 12-2.

"He had an incredible impact on our football team," Hoke adds. "It wasn't just punting. You look at all the touchbacks he had on kickoffs as well and even the way he'd cover on a punt or the kickoff. He really was our MVP with how much he helped us defensively and changed field position."

Araiza's kickoff average was 65.05 yards, which was third in the nation. Nearly 85 percent of his kickoffs went for touchbacks, which ranked fifth nationally. He added 18 field goals and connected on all 45 of his extra points.

And yes, through it all, that nickname spread like wildfire: Punt God.

It doesn't necessarily suit him, and Araiza will be the first to say that the name feels like a bit much. Still, he's flattered by it and has learned to embrace it. Whether or not the name is a tad overstated, it speaks to the impact he was able to have despite rarely being on the field.

"He's a kicker, and we tend to really take kickers for granted," Hoke says. "I can assure you that I will never take that for granted again."

Steve Luciano/Associated Press

The perfect punt, according to Araiza, travels just 50 yards. It should have a hang time of no less than five seconds. It must be placed in just the proper direction—to the desired sideline and spot on the field. It should not have a return of any kind.

The nuance of this very particular action—part art, part science—is often easily overlooked by the average eye. In an NFL game, this is normally when the restroom breaks occur and the beer lines grow longer. But its significance on the outcome of a game is indisputable.

By way of example, Araiza is at a rare, natural advantage because he's a lefty. The ball comes off his foot with counterclockwise spin, meaning it moves through the air differently than it would from a right-footed punter.

It's not a movement most punt returners regularly see. That's one of the reasons Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has employed lefty punters for most of his tenure with New England.

Nick Novak knows this science better than most. In his previous life, he was an NFL kicker for well over a decade. He kicked for nearly a half-dozen franchises and connected on 182 field goals during his professional career.

Along the way, he earned a black belt in punting simply by watching all-time greats such as Shane Lechler, Brad Maynard and Mike Scifres master their crafts. During practices, he would ask questions and pick their brains.

He even punted in a couple of games, including one in 2014 when Scifres was out because of injury. "I had a long of 51 and didn't embarrass myself," Novak says.

These days, when he isn't coaching at Maranatha High School in San Diego, Novak is sharing his vast encyclopedia of punting and kicking knowledge with those trying to further their careers.

And over the past few months, he has been tasked with enriching Punt God's powers.

"The kind of punts he was hitting, the 4.4s [seconds] and 4.3s that travel 60 or 70 yards was perfect for the college game," Novak says. "It makes perfect sense to kick the ball as far as you can. Situationally, you can still do that in the NFL. But we wanted a more balanced punt."

Punters chase hang time the way wide receivers chase speed in the 40-yard dash. The only difference, and it's a major one, is a higher time is desired.

They would evaluate Araiza's form by placing 15 cameras around him to ensure his body was hitting the proper "skeletal levels and angles."

His steps have been shortened so the ball will be in his hands for less time. His motion has been compacted to maximize efficiency. He's also dropping the ball higher in his "swing"—a term punters proudly share with golf—for more air and lift.

"He wasn't able to hit above a 4.8 before we started working because he would kick it so far out," Novak says. "He's now hitting 4.8 to 5.3 seconds with ease. He just hit his first 5.5, which he had never done."

The very thought of reworking a motion that led Araiza to the most prolific punting season in NCAA history might sound counterintuitive. In some ways, it is.

But there is risk associated with Araiza's collegiate punting style—a style and genre he refers somewhat proudly as "brute force."

"It's not that an 80-yard punt won't work in the NFL," Araiza says. "It's just a scarier thing because you're punting to Tyreek Hill. You don't want to give him that much space."

A longer punt means more ground for the punt team to cover. It also means more space for the punt returner to gain speed, assuming the punt doesn't travel over his head. In college, of course, that was often the plan.

With some of the world's fastest humans seeking just one opportunity, Araiza, with the help of Novak, has altered his game to eradicate this risk. Well, for the time being.

"I do believe my style—a college style—will eventually be seen in the NFL," Araiza says. "I think I'll find ways to pull it off. But my mentality throughout this process is not to make the NFL conform to me. It's my job to conform to the NFL. I need to get established.

"Then eventually the goal is to go back to the kick-the-crap-out-of-the-ball style. I want to change games."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - MARCH 5: Matt Araiza #PK01 of the San Diego State Aztecs speaks to reporters during the NFL Draft Combine at the Indiana Convention Center on March 5, 2022 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

He knew the negativity was coming. His teammates, current and former, warned him—that someone would attempt to make him squirm. Still, during an interview at the NFL combine in early March, Araiza couldn't help but get swept up in strategic dissatisfaction.

"You're not ready," an NFL team told him.

This team, which Araiza prefers not to name, also questioned his decision to leave school with eligibility remaining. NFL coaches at the combine somewhat famously take on these roles; they want to see how a player responds.

Days later, Araiza responded. He dropped perfectly placed punts that seemed to test the dimensions of the Lucas Oil Stadium roof. He showcased how his left leg would translate on kickoffs, clobbering easy touchbacks deep into the end zone.

At 6'2" and 200 pounds, he even delivered a superb 4.68-second 40-yard dash, showcasing the depths of his athleticism.

"I'm the kind of person who takes stuff like that super personally," Araiza says. "I also love it. I walked around pissed off the rest of that combine week. The first time I crushed a ball, I was excited. I was also hoping that the person who told me that was watching.

"I am a radically better punter than I was three months ago."

Whether teams agree will be revealed when the NFL draft begins April 28. Only 23 punters have been selected in the NFL draft. Bryan Anger, a Pro Bowler in 2021, was selected in the third round—pick No. 70—out of Cal in 2012.

This, of course, is not the status quo. Punters are normally taken much later or signed as undrafted free agents.

"The dream is the third round," Novak says. "I think we're both on the same page. Realistically, we're looking maybe at the fourth round as an ideal place to go. The big thing is that he'll get a chance no matter where he lands."

Araiza is no longer consumed by the mystery of his placement in the draft, and it will remain a mystery until his name is (hopefully) called. His concern, more than anything, is fit. He wants to play early, and he wants to win.

Much like his draft status, his exact role is still to be carved out. It will depend largely on where he lands.

Despite Araiza's ability to fill three potential positions on a roster—punter, kicker and kickoff specialist—Novak says NFL teams are focused on his punting. For both longevity and performance, he's content with less. More, in his eyes, no matter how exciting it was at San Diego State, isn't necessarily ideal. But Araiza hasn't given up on the possibility.

"I haven't had a single team tell me they want me to do both," Araiza says. "I think it's something coordinators are scared of. But that's another thing that I would like to tackle down the road. Once I am an established punter, I would like to compete for that job. Hopefully at some point I get a shot to do what no one has done before."

A better, more refined version of Punt God is being molded. This much we know.

He will bring with him an entire arsenal of punts and abilities to Sundays—proficiencies he will gladly showcase if he's allowed. And just like before, you'll know when they're coming.

Look up and up and up, and wait for the gasp.