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November 25, 2010

Hankins finishing career among nation's best punters

Trevor Hankins was never supposed to be punting the football.

In fact, when first tried in high school, he was met with a scolding voice of resistance.

"Kick the ball again and you're going to run until your butt falls off," an assistant coach at Scottsdale Chaparral bellowed.

Hankins played just about everywhere on the field during his prep career at Chaparral -- offensive tackle, defensive end, quarterback, tight end and longsnapper, to name a few -- but it wasn't until part way through his junior year that the Firebird coaching staff realized the booting-the-ball-around-for-fun Hankins was doing at practice could turn into a major special teams advantage.

Now a fifth-year senior at Arizona State, Hankins is still booming the ball off a powerful right foot, and yes, his talents are continuing to create an advantage for his team.

Entering Friday's game against UCLA, Hankins is ninth in the nation with a 45.5-yard per punt average and is among the top candidates for the Ray Guy Award, given annually to the country's top punter.

"It's all pretty humbling," Hankins says.

Not bad for a guy who four year ago believed his days of playing football were over.

A different plan

While he filled in wherever needed during his three year's on Chaparral's varsity squad, including a six-game stretch at quarterback during his junior year in which he guided the team to blemish-free record, the 6-foot-5, 240-pound Hankins established himself as a coveted tight end during his senior season in 2005, playing alongside former ASU wide receiver Kyle Williams.

Hankins finished his senior season leading Chaparral with 31 catches for 656 yards and five touchdowns, enough to earn him First-Team All-State honors. It was also enough to garner a scholarship from Northern Arizona, where coach Jerome Souers planned to use Hankins as a tight end and punter.

But in an instant, those plans rapidly changed.

Hankins, who was redshirting his first year in 2006, began to execute a lift in the weight room when something in his back felt terribly wrong. It was a compression fracture of the T12 vertebrae in his lower back. Hankins' first season in the cool air of Flagstaff was over before it began.

It was adversity the Scottsdale native hadn't faced, and suddenly he felt a million miles from home. So he packed up his car and headed back home, unsure if football would ever follow him.

"I just came home and decided not to stay up at NAU anymore," Hankins said. "I was just going to see where life took me from there."

But as he began rehabbing, Hankins still couldn't scratch the pigskin itch. So he enrolled at Glendale Community College to play football. With his back keeping him off the field as a tight end, he worked tirelessly on his punting. As his craft rapidly improved, Hankins was approached by an old friend, who said he said he had an opportunity for the punter.

"Kyle Williams was a good high school buddy of mine," Hankins said. "He got me an invite to come out and practice and one day I was just booming the ball. Coach (Dennis) Erickson called me the next day and asked me if I'd be part of team and the tradition."

Waiting for the chance

When the 2008 season began, two years after suffering an injury he thought would end his football-playing days, Hankins was standing on sidelines donned in maroon and gold. But he soon realized the punting job wouldn't just be handed to him.

Then-sophomore Thomas Weber, coming off a freshman season in which he won the Lou Groza Award as the nation's best kicker, was also doing a stellar job punting. The coaching staff, hoping to reduce the kicker's chance of injury, wanted to groom Hankins into the role, but Weber's performance made him hard to sit down.

Two months into the season, though, with Weber nursing a slight leg injury, Hankins got his chance. The results were mixed. At times, like when he booted a 53-yard punt during the third quarter of a game against Oregon, Hankins showed off the capabilities of a powerful leg. At other times -- he averaged 37.1 yards per game during while appearing in two games -- his nerves got the best of him.

Heading into his junior season, Hankins went to work in the summer with longsnapper Thomas Ohmart and Weber, perfecting his craft in the tortuous desert sun. He earned the starting job heading into the 2009 campaign, and midway through the season, his performance had him on a watch list for the Ray Guy Award. But while he finished the season with a 44.2 yard-per-punt average, Hankins wasn't pleased with some of the struggles he experienced during the second half of the year. If he had learned one thing, though, it was that the offseason is the time to improve. Heading into his final college season, Hankins was back in the sun again, aiming to leave his mark during his last year in Tempe.

"We all -- me, Weber, Tommy (Ohmart) and (longsnapper) Cameron Kastl -- we all put in a long offseason," Hankins said. "I've gotten to feel more comfortable back there. I worked on speeding up my times a little bit, and the more you kick the better you get."

The offseason schedule, for Hankins also included work at his role as a holder on kicks, a position he's held since joining the team.

"Trevor has gotten so good at holding that we have that confidence in each other," Weber said. "You have to have that relationship where you trust each other."

So far, it looks like the hard work is paying off. Hankins' power has been able to help ASU change field position (see: a 61-yard punt with ASU at its own 27 in a tight game against Wisconsin that was downed at the Badgers' 12). And improving accuracy is allowing Hankins to pin teams deep in their own territory (see: two punts downed inside the five against Washington State).

"(Hankins' performance) has been huge," Erickson said. "We're protecting him really well, and Ohmart is snapping it well. (Hankins) is doing a really good job."

Experts agree with Erickson. Hankins is currently among the top-rated punters by a number of NFL draft analysts, opening the possibility that the player who once thought his football days were behind him could soon play on the grandest stage of them all.

"It would be surreal," Hankins said of playing in the NFL. "I don't think words can even describe it. I'll just have to tell you if I get there."


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