You don’t remember this play, but Will Hart does.
By the time fourth-and-9 came around with 11:55 to go in the fourth quarter, Michigan holding a 56-3 lead and rolling through Nebraska, you had probably left your seat or turned off your TV, looking to do something better with your Saturday afternoon. Hart, who is going into his senior year as Michigan’s punter, calls it the highlight of his 2018 season.
He had a few good punts that game, but none better than that one. It rocketed off his leg, died on the 5-yard line after going 64 yards. “That stands out to me,” Hart said Tuesday. “I don’t know. I kinda just remember the feeling of it coming off my leg.”
Hart averaged 47 yards per punt last season. It ranked first in the Big Ten, fourth in the country. Few noticed or cared, because that’s what it is to be a punter. Hart doesn’t have a recruiting profile on 247Sports. His Rivals page doesn’t have a picture or a star rating — it lists seven schools as interested, and none are Michigan.
When the Wolverines found Hart, special teams coordinator Chris Partridge recalled Wednesday, their biggest competition was Colgate, an FCS school in Northern New York that had a total enrollment of 2,872 in 2015.
The coaching staff liked what they saw, and soon enough, Hart was committed as a preferred walk-on. By last season, he won the starting job from Brad Robbins, and as the games piled up, Hart placed that job in a chokehold.
Michigan emphasizes directional punting, which is to say it wants to put the ball where a returner can’t get to it and where it won’t roll out of the end zone for a touchback. That doesn’t get any easier in the Big Ten, which Hart called the windiest conference in college football.
The thing about punting: Most people only notice when you make a mistake. If you Google, “Michigan punter,” the search autocompletes with, “drops ball.” The first result is a feature on Blake O’Neill, who was on the receiving end of the infamous botched snap against Michigan State in 2015. The first three videos that come up are of that exact play. This is to say, the best thing Hart can do is stay anonymous.
He will never get plaudits for a precise drop, the right amount of hangtime or placing the ball in just the right spot. His being on the field means Michigan’s offense has done something wrong and for fans, it’s usually the right time to go to the bathroom or scroll Twitter.
Navigating that reality required some time for Hart. He says now that a punter’s mentality isn’t different from a quarterback’s. It wasn’t always that way, though.
“After my sophomore year, I definitely had to come over some hurdles to realize what I was doing wrong, whether it was from a physical aspect or mental aspect,” Hart said. “And eventually, I just was able to overcome it. Basically just working, doing it on my own. Realizing what’s important to think about, what’s important to do, basically. Simple stuff that usually people wouldn’t understand, but it’s usually more, definitely comes down to more of a mental game.”
Hart said he now looks at it as if he has nothing to lose. Football is just a game, after all. “When you think about it like that, you have fun, you want to win games,” he said. “I mean, that sounds like a lot of fun, doesn’t it?”
It’s gotten him this far, to the start of another season, with the chance to make more memories. Not for others, but at least for himself.