In what would have been a poetic travesty, Hunter the Punter didn’t always want to be a punter.
“I was asked about doing it the summer before my sophomore year of high school. ... I tried it out and didn’t really like it,” Hunter Kelley, Penn football’s standout fourth-down man, said. “I didn’t like just standing on the sideline. I ended up quitting.”
However, the self-imposed hiatus didn’t last long. After Kelley’s teammate on the soccer team ended up kicking on the gridiron in his stead, the California native had a change of heart. The rest is history.
“His high school coach called me and said, ‘We have a talented kid here,’” Penn coach Ray Priore said. “We watched some tapes on him and thought, ‘Let’s give him a shot.’”
The decision to bring Kelley on board has paid dividends for the Red and Blue. Starting at punter since the beginning of his freshman year in 2014, the now-junior has developed into perhaps the best at his position in the Ivy League. He has bombed punts as far as 73 yards (in 2015 versus Fordham) and has pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line eight times in only five games this season. Meanwhile, his 42.6 yards per punt rank 15th in all of the FCS.
Kelley has posted these statistics under the direct tutelage of Priore, who eschews delegating to a special teams coordinator and personally heads the unit himself.
“I’ve been with Priore since the beginning; he’s the one who recruited me,” Kelley said. “A lot of people will look at Coach P like he’s the highest one on the pedestal, but we’ve been with him for so long that he’s just our position coach.”
Apart from his penchant for booming punts, Priore is most impressed with Kelley’s off-the-field work ethic.
“He trains as hard as anyone on the team,” the second-year coach said. “A lot of times kickers get a bad rap, people say they don’t work hard. He works extremely hard.”
Kelley is not the only player on the roster capable of impressing with a punt. Senior quarterback Alek Torgersen has a history of punting himself — a talent he exhibited most recently on Saturday, when he pinned Columbia at its own three with a surprise pooch punt, the eighth such time Torgersen has executed the play in his Penn career.
That was not the first time Torgersen has one-upped Kelley with his punting skills.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but Alek and I went to the same high school [Edison HS in Huntington Beach, Calif.],” Kelley noted. “When I was a junior, he actually [started at punter] over me.”
The punter has certainly come a long way from his inauspicious high school start. And if you ask Kelley, the pinnacle of his kicking career occurred last fall versus Harvard, in the game that all but locked up a share of the Ivy title for the Red and Blue.
With just over a minute remaining in the 35-25 victory, Penn punted from its own 34 yard line, hoping to bleed out the clock. Kelley did much more than that; he unleashed a 63-yard missile, pinning the Crimson all their way down at the own three, putting an exclamation point on the season-defining win.
“I’ve never seen so many people get hyped for a punt,” he said. “Coaches were coming up to me who would never leave their job in the middle of a game to say, ‘great punt,’ but they did.”
Penn’s high flying offense — led by Torgersen, doing his day job — will look to avoid fourth down as much as possible over the next five weeks as they come through the home stretch of Ivy play.
But, if and when they’re forced to kick it away, Kelley’s presence means that that’s far from the end of the world.