It’s two hours before kickoff, and Milton Academy senior Justin Yoon is out on Stokinger Field, leading the kicking unit in pre-game drills.
But the No. 1 prospect in Massachusetts, according to ESPN’s Recruiting Nation, won’t be the one handling kicking duties during the Mustangs’ fifth game of the season. Instead, it will be his hand picked protégé and good friend, Min Kyu Park.
Yoon’s been sidelined with a lower back injury since Milton Academy’s (3-2) first game of the season, but it would take more than few cracked vertebrae to keep him from sharing his knowledge of the game, and legendary work ethic with his teammates.
“[Justin’s] mostly improved on his own,” said Kevin Macdonald, who is in his 19th year as head coach of the Mustangs. “We brought in a great kicking coach when he was a freshman, but Justin was so advanced that pretty soon we learned to just let him coach himself.”
Coincidentally, Park and Yoon grew up down the street from each other in Nashville, Tenn., yet they never met until Park enrolled at Milton Academy last fall.
Like Yoon, Park is a Korean-American athlete who excelled as a soccer player. He led Milton Academy’s freshman team in goals before Yoon convinced him to give football a try.
“Justin knows everything you need to know about kicking,” Park said prior to the game. “He was able to show me all the technical differences between kicking a soccer ball and a football, the way you flex your foot, focusing on something between the uprights, and sticking to a routine with your footwork.”
After going through a couple of drills with the punting unit, it’s time for Yoon to stretch out his legs. Having recently been cleared to kick again, the Notre Dame commit is anxious to get out on the field and show the world that his injury is behind him.
“Three steps back and two to the left,” Yoon explained, “It’s the same mentality whether in practice or in a game. Once I find my target, I just have to hit the sweet spot on the ball with my foot, and make sure everything about the process is the same. Repetition is the biggest part of kicking.”
He begins with a few 30-yard field goals, not an easy feat in the swirling winds on Milton Academy’s campus, but he makes them look like chip shots. Backing up 10 yards, Yoon lines up his kick, and uses a jab step that he says helps generate more power.
A couple passersby start to gather as he moves the tee back to the 40-yard line. The ball explodes off his right foot with an audible “pop” and the onlookers exclaim something beginning with “holy” as he guides it through the uprights.
“I’m still not nailing my 50-yarders!” Yoon yells through the autumn wind at his teammate, who smiles at the kickers’ high standards.
Standing at 5-foot-11, and weighing 183 pounds, Yoon said that rebuilding his strength after his back injury is a top priority.
“It is my dream to play professionally. It’s something that makes me want to go one step further in my training. There have been some ups and downs this year, but now that I understand where my body’s at, I know I can perform well in the final couple of games to show Notre Dame that I’m ready, and healthy.”
The snap comes in a bit low and to the right, causing Yoon to move out of his theoretical punting stance.
“Don’t think too much,” he tells the long snapper, “the target is me, relax and push through the ball.”
He claps enthusiastically after the next snap hits his hands, simultaneously commending his center while offering advice to Park, who is warming up with some field goal attempts to the right of the punt team.
Yoon has tallied 149 points (22 of 29 on field goals, 83 of 86 on point after attempts) in his career as a Mustang, only failing to score in this season’s opener. As a sophomore, he hit four deep field goals (from 54, 49, 48, 37 yards out) in a matchup with Independent School League power Governor’s Academy, putting him on the radar for college scouts.
This season, Yoon became the first kicker to ever top ESPNU’s rankings for Massachusetts, and is considered by most national scouting services as the first or second best prospect at his position.
While his ability to score from anywhere in enemy territory makes him quite the weapon, MacDonald said the fact that nearly 80 percent of Yoon’s kickoffs result in touchbacks may be even more beneficial considering how rare that is for a high school team.
“It certainly makes our defensive coordinator happy,” chuckled MacDonald. “He’s been terrific every year. Hopefully he’s going to have a long career as a pro, but in any case, he could definitely become a great special teams coach at some point. He’s always coaching, and he’s highly observant.”
His ability to train and prepare teammates, and eventual replacements may end up as Yoon’s greatest contribution to the program.
Min Park is now 24 for 26 on point after attempts (his two misses were blocked) after tallying five extra points in Milton Academy’s 43-12 win over St. Paul’s last Saturday.
“Min didn’t want to quit soccer to play football at first,” MacDonald recalled, “but Justin can be very insistent. Now he’s definitely following in his footsteps, and Justin’s made sure he went to all the right camps, and is training the right way.”
Yoon tells his sophomore protégé to take one more round of practice kicks, and then rest up before the game.
“He’s been overtraining a little,” Yoon says. “I’m trying to get him into game shape, and teach him strategies to deal with the mental pressure, so that when it’s his time, maybe he can go on to college as a kicker.”
While Yoon hopes to return to game action when the Mustangs take on Governor’s Academy this weekend, his coach says they’ll wait until he’s 100 percent, which will likely be during the final two games of Milton Academy’s season.
In the meantime, Yoon can focus on his newfound passion – teaching.
“I’ve been coaching here and there for a lot of kids, which helps me become a better kicker by learning through experience. Coaching is definitely another dream of mine, because I know first hand that the kicking team is a unit, it’s all about trusting your teammates and when you can develop relationships between those players, it’s much easier to feel content.”
Park and Yoon have developed a relationship that goes beyond the field. The two friends go to a nearby Korean restaurant to eat after practice sometimes.
Park’s parents planned to take them out after the game with St. Paul.
As Park finishes up his routine, his mother and father walk across the end zone to confirm the plan. He nods quickly, hoping they’ll stop embarrassing him in front of his teammates. They get the memo and start to walk back towards their car wearing smiles that indicate what they must know – their son is in good hands.