Why college football's must-see attraction is a punter from San Diego State

You're a linebacker ready to rush the opposing kicker to try to block his field goal. You break through, but not fast enough; the kick is good and you end up barging into the holder instead. Suddenly, the kicker is in your face, pointing his finger at you, shouting at you. He's not going to let you get away with taking a shot at his holder. Not this kicker.

Maybe you're a wide receiver looking to return a punt. You're standing near your own 35-yard line because the ball is being snapped inside the opposite 10-yard line. Surely, the punt won't go more than 70 yards, you think. But the ball explodes off the kicker's leg and you find yourself taking steps back, and back, and further back. The ball hits the ground and ends up landing inside your own 20-yard line. The field has been flipped.

Or perhaps you're a teammate prepping for a workout. You walk into the weight room, ready to do some heavy squats, only to see the kicker set up on a nearby rack, squatting the same weight you're about to contend with -- and doing it with ease. You think to yourself: This is not a normal kicker.

Matt Araiza is not your typical kicker. His left leg is a Swiss Army knife that booms punts, nails field goals and crushes kickoffs. His brain processes all of it as part-golf swing, part-soccer shot and part-math equation. His passion is one that coaches and teammates, past and present, rave about. It's what often makes him one of the most competitive players on the field, ready to dish out tackles as easily as trash talk, and what prompts him to do everything in his power to make sure people respect him and his fellow specialists.

This season, Araiza has turned into a kicking phenomenon and an offensive weapon for the defensively inclined 8-1 San Diego State Aztecs. He has multiple 50-yard field goals and has an 83% touchback rate (top-10 in the country with at least 40 kickoffs). He has two punts of over 80 yards, six punts over 70 yards, an NCAA-record 15 punts over 60 yards and averages 363 punting yards per game and just over 52 yards per punt (both tops in the nation). He is on pace to break the record for most punting yards in a season and well on his way to breaking the records for most yards per punt, too. It's those punts that often look like doctored videos that have turned Araiza into a vessel for viral videos.

"All of that stuff is crazy to me. I didn't expect to be getting this much attention for kicking," Araiza told ESPN last week. "But if I can be a little piece of a change in the narrative about what everyone thinks a kicker and punter is, I'll be happy with that."

Araiza's path to kicking glory and social media fame didn't happen overnight, but it was just a few months ago that he found himself struggling. He thought he might kick his way out of his starting role unless he buckled down and fixed things. He's done that and then some.

"I knew the talent and leg strength were there," said Tyler Holcomb, who was Araiza's holder for three seasons at Rancho Bernardo High. "And he worked hard, but I don't know if you could ever expect anyone to be the best punter in the country."

The soccer fields at North County Park in Poway, Calif., just 25 miles north of downtown San Diego is where the left-footed, 5-year-old Araiza first learned that leg strength was not as important as technique, hand-eye coordination and repetition. There, his dad Rico, who was born in Mexico, would have him go through soccer drills like one-touch passes and shots from different angles and positions over and over again with both legs. These days, Araiza can hit up to a 48-yarder with his off leg.

"I do remember everyone was always impressed by how far I could kick a ball for my age," Araiza said. "I was always probably a year or two ahead."

Growing up, football seemed violent to Araiza. He was interested in going pro in soccer, but when he arrived in high school, he had already been kicking footballs for fun at local parks and was considering giving football a shot. His dad pushed him, his mom relented and his teammates relayed the message to the football coaches: There's a soccer player who wants to kick.

It didn't take long for the coaches to realize they had something special in the athlete who was as fast and big as anyone on the team at the time. At just 14 years old, Araiza was hitting field goals from beyond 40 yards. He had always had a strong leg, but he never had a scale to measure it until he started kicking on a football field.

"He didn't seem to have to overswing and the ball just kind of exploded off his foot," Araiza's high school coach Tristan McCoy said. "It just looked effortless with him."

San Diego State special teams coach Doug Deakin first watched Araiza as a high school prospect on tape while he was an operations assistant at SDSU. He was impressed, and the Aztecs didn't hesitate in offering Araiza a scholarship. But nothing could have prepared Deakin for the sound Araiza's foot made as it struck the ball. As Araiza arrived on campus and began punting for 60 yards or more as a freshman, Deakin was captivated by the sound; he still is. When Araiza kicks a ball, you can almost hear how far it'll go.

"The ball just sounds different coming off his foot," Deakin said. "It immediately climbs."

Both McCoy and Araiza's current coach, Brady Hoke, mentioned how having Araiza immediately changed how they approach offensive drives, especially in fourth-down situations, knowing Araiza could and likely would flip the field.

"You're thinking ahead a bit, you know what kind of weapon we have," Hoke said. "Really, I just get excited to watch him go out there and do his thing."

As McCoy points out, people didn't come to see Araiza kick in high school, but by the time the game was over, they couldn't help but comment on his talent. Soon, the joke at Rancho Bernardo was that they didn't need to practice kickoff coverage because Araiza was an automatic touchback machine.

Getting Araiza to explain how he has become an elite kicker requires a bit less romanticism and some more context. First, you have to understand that he's a computer science major who knows he can grasp concepts better if they're delivered in a quantitative fashion. If there was a formula to perfect kicking, Araiza is well on his way to defining it.

"From the time the snap moves to when I kick the ball, it needs to be under 2.1 seconds," Araiza said. "And the snap takes around 0.7. So that leaves me with like 1.4, 1.3 seconds to work with."

To hear him talk about kicking now, you can see how obsessive Araiza is about every detail -- from how many steps he takes into the ball to the way he angles his body forward. Araiza says when he arrived at SDSU he was stagnant, catching the ball with both feet planted. Now, he's stepping into it more and gathering more momentum.

"He has very relaxed steps and uses a lot of hip rotation through his swing on both punts and field goals," said Filip Filipović, a former NFL kicker who now runs a kicking clinic that features multiple NFL kickers as alumni. "There is always a fine line with hip rotation. More hip rotation equals more power, but less consistency ... Overall, he looks like a very well-rounded athlete with quick leg snap and solid kicking technique."

As Araiza puts it, a kicker's approach is determined not just by his leg strength but by his height and weight. He's identified the NFL kicker that most closely resembles him in both (the Patriots' Jake Bailey) and studied him, among others.

The second thing you have to understand about Araiza is that he's a golfer. For as much as he is a logical thinker driven by mathematical concepts, he also recognizes there's an art to kicking. He's adopted a willingness to try things, to change things up and even accept short-term regression as part of a necessary growth. Plus, Araiza knows as well as anyone that you can only prepare so much. If you suddenly get a bad snap, logic goes out the window and instinct kicks in.

"The analogy in golf is like, you have to be able to find your hands in your backswing," Araiza said. "That coordination can save people and for me, that coordination and athleticism can save me when I should be hitting a bad ball. I don't have to swing too hard because your foot finds the ball."

The third thing you have to understand about Araiza is that despite his talent, he's had to put the work in. Just a few months ago, he was coming off a season where, in his own words, he wasn't ready to handle all three facets of kicking and so his field goal kicking suffered. The reality that he might not actually be able to further his kicking career beyond college spooked him, so he responded.

"I worked harder than I ever have in my life at anything this offseason," Araiza said.

He didn't overwork his leg or add more kicking to his routines, but he made sure every kick mattered.

"I remember texting my dad and telling him that I want this more than I've ever wanted anything in my life," Araiza said. "And I think that mentality and that drive helped me a lot."

Through it all, Araiza has realized that, even if he is most comfortable approaching kicking as a science, oftentimes, it comes down to emotion.

Don't tell Araiza to stay calm.

His fire is part of the package, even if it has gotten him red cards and kicked out of games before. Coaches and teammates can recall when the biggest concern they had was not whether Araiza's field goal would go through the uprights, but rather whether he'd get flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct after getting into a defender's face if he got close to his leg. Or when he'd get so frustrated with a miss he'd throw the ball in anger. Holcomb recalls a time during a high school playoff game where he was holding for Araiza and a linebacker crushed him on his blind side. Araiza immediately charged at the linebacker and got in his face for blindsiding Holcomb and the two had to be separated.

"It was never out of control or a bad sport," McCoy said. "It was just he was so into the game and wanted to succeed and wanted to win so badly that you know, sometimes he lost his composure."

Araiza remembers being told by coaches in the past that he couldn't react to the swings of a game like a normal player. He needed to remain calm in case he had to be called upon in a high pressure situation. This year, though, he's realized that this does not work for him. His investment in the game and his competitive nature makes him better suited to perform when he is engaged with the ups and down of a game.

"I've just let my emotions show after punts or field goals, or tackles I've made," Araiza said. "I think that helps motivate me and helps me perform better."

His coaches learned that, too. Besides giving him a routine to follow in practice, they made sure they put him in high-pressure situations with stakes. At SDSU, Araiza had to compete with and follow John Baron, who held the single season field goal record until Araiza broke it as a redshirt freshman in 2019 (22 made), and all-conference punter Brandon Heicklen. Both McCoy and Deakin turned Araiza's kicking into the equivalent of a last-second basketball shot as well as a team punishment, depending on whether Araiza could hit it.

"When we do field goals, it's in front of the whole team," Deakin said. "There's generally consequences, whether it's another gasser for the team if he doesn't make it or just the personal pressure of not wanting to let his teammates down in front of them."

Being considered part of the team is paramount to Araiza. He once told Deakin that if he overheard any other player bad-mouthing a specialist, whether a holder or kicker, to let him know and he'd confront them. Of course, everything about the way Araiza carries himself translates into respect. When the team runs, he runs. When the team lifts, he lifts. Hoke compares him to former Michigan kicker Jay Feely, who was always looking to make a tackle after a kick. It's striking to see how Araiza has gone from viewing football as a violent sport he watched from afar to his own playground.

"I think he's rewriting the way people think about the specialist position," Deakin said.

Even on the rare occasions when he makes a mistake, Araiza still finds a way to make an impression. Deakin remembers a 2019 game against UCLA where Araiza missed the sweet spot on a kickoff and squibbed a ball that led to a big Bruins return. It was Araiza who tracked down the returner and tackled him, but by the time he returned to the SDSU sidelines, Araiza was beside himself in frustration about the missed kick. Deakin fed him a compliment, "Hey, nice hit."

Araiza shot back. "Yeah, that's what you're supposed to do."