PULLMAN – Last season, when they shared nothing more than a living space and some lofty goals related to kicking a football, Oscar Draguicevich III and Blake Mazza made a joint decision on the décor for their three-bedroom pad near the Washington State campus.
With the approval of roommate Calvin Jackson Jr., Pullman’s newest Texas transplants attached the Lone Star Flag to a wall in one of the unit’s communal areas. It meant that WSU’s punter and place-kicker would never be too far from the prominent white star stitched to the state’s most recognizable emblem – a piece of home for two specialists a couple of thousand miles from it.
The Cougars hit it big in the Lone Star State last January when Mazza, a native of Dallas-Fort Worth suburb Plano and a former Arkansas specialist, committed to WSU, giving head coach Mike Leach some security in the place-kicking department after the graduation of Lou Groza Award semifinalist Erik Powell.
WSU then completed a Texas two-step a few months later, quelling issues in the punting game when Draguicevich, a big-legged junior college transfer from Hutto, Texas, who’d previously been at FCS Incarnate Word, pledged to the Cougars on March 26.
It was a kicker-punter coup for the ages, and now splitting the uprights and flipping the field at WSU has never looked easier.
Mazza connected on 10 of 15 field goals in 2018 as a redshirt freshman and hit a clutch 42-yarder to beat Stanford in Palo Alto. He’s off to a perfect start this season, making 4 of 4 field goals and matching his career long with a 50-yarder against New Mexico State.
“He’s gotten better over the offseason,” Leach said.
By at least one measure, Draguicevich’s first season at WSU was the best in program history. His punts sailed an average of 45.7 yards – a school record and the seventh-best average in the country. Draguicevich was an All-Pac-12 honorable mention choice in 2018. When the league released its preseason honors, Draguicevich was the only WSU player – offense, defense or special teams – named to the first team.
“He punts it as far as anybody in the conference and it’s kind of a mixed bag. We’re trying to not let him punt at all,” Leach said. “But when he does, we need a great punt and he provides it.”
Friday, when WSU faces Houston at NRG Stadium, relatives and friends of the Cougars’ specialists will be scattered around the concourse and just about every section of the Texans’ 71,000-seat venue, as Draguicevich and Mazza make a much-anticipated return home – their second in four games, after the two got a bonus trip to San Antonio for the 2018 Alamo Bowl.
The flag that hung on the wall of their humble abode in Pullman bears a great deal of significance for WSU’s Texan specialists, similar to the connection they have with their home state.
Futbol to football
Orange peels and penalty shootouts came before punting and place-kicking for Draguicevich and Mazza.
Not unlike many of their kicking and punting counterparts around the country, WSU’s specialists began as soccer whizzes before the magnetic pull of Texas high school football convinced them to make a switch.
Draguivecich’s father, Oscar II, played collegiate soccer at North Texas and went on to spend 11 years as a professional, being drafted in 1996 by the San Jose Clash in the MLS inaugural player draft. The elder Draguicevich’s career took him to Orlando, Detroit, Cleveland, Seattle and Germany, and he spent time playing for the U.S. national team in futsal – a modified indoor version of the game that uses a smaller ball and is played on a hard surface.
“So growing up, he probably doesn’t remember this, but he as a 2-year-old got to run around a soccer field a little bit,” the elder Draguicevich said in a phone interview Tuesday. “So he was kicking balls at a very young age. As soon as he could start walking.”
Draguicevich played for the Houston Dynamo’s Austin-based academy at age 14 and was a dependable goal-scorer for the Hutto High Hippos until he traded sports his junior season.
A soccer injury had sidelined Draguicevich and the Hutto forward was milling around practice one afternoon when he found a football, removed his cleat, wound up and drove his leg through a 50-yarder.
The made kick wasn’t an accident, per se, but what happened next was.
“My high school (football) coach was like, ‘Hey, do you want to kick for us?’ ” Draguicevich said.
Mazza’s family doesn’t have the same soccer lineage, but the kicker also had prowess on the pitch as a youngster, spending time playing for FC Dallas’ youth developmental team.
“He always had the ability to put a foot to a ball pretty precisely,” father Matt Mazza said. “… He was always one of those kids that, when he was on defense they didn’t give up goals and when he was on offense, they scored.”
Worried about the wear and tear both sports were placing on their son’s legs – Mazza would often report to soccer practice after two hours with the football team – Matt and Kristen Mazza forced their son to make a choice. Mazza had also developed a minor hip flexor issue, something doctors easily traced to overuse.
Besides, “Pretty much everybody’s going to play football at some point,” Matt Mazza said. “That’s Texas.”
Specialty punting and kicking instruction can be expensive and time-consuming, but both families bit the bullet once their sons dedicated themselves to football, realizing the payoff could be a full-ride college scholarship.
Draguicevich sought out help from Jamie Kohl, whose national camps bring in a wide array of NFL, college and high school punters. Kohl was hired as the Chicago Bears’ kicking coach this offseason.
In eighth grade, Mazza started getting private help from former Oklahoma and Washington Redskins kicker Scott Blanton, who also runs his own program, Kicking Exposure, and is based out of the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Matt Mazza said it paid major dividends for his son to train alongside college-level kickers while Blake was still in middle school, fast-tracking his development.
“Jaden (Oberkrom) was a sophomore, a nationally ranked sophomore in college in TCU and (Blake) was working out with him during the week,” Matt said. “… What Scott was wanting to do, he said, ‘I want Blake to feel the challenge of, this is what it takes to be at this level.’… I think that had as much to do with Blake’s development as anything.”
Mazza’s gradual progress began to earn him trips to invitation-only kicking camps, held by renowned instructors such as Kohl and Chris Sailer, who ranked Mazza the No. 12 place-kicker in the class of 2017.
“On one hand, it’s an honor and you want to go there and you want to perform,” Matt said. “But at the same time, there’s a lot of costs associated with it. … There’s a couple of them, we sent him on a plane when he was 16 years old and he flew up to a national camp in Wisconsin with Jamie Kohl and was there three or four days at a national camp by himself.”
In a much different way, the elite camps were revealing for Draguicevich. There was a pivotal moment at one of those when Kohl, the golden standard for college-bound kickers and punters, suggested to the young punter: “Look son, I don’t think you have what it takes to kick at the D-I level.”
Draguicevich is on good terms with Kohl and is regularly invited to share his experience with aspiring specialists who were once in his position at various camps. But years later, Kohl’s message still bounces through his brain.
“That just absolutely lit a flame under him and from that moment on he’s just been on a tear,” the elder Draguicevich said.
Mazza jumped at an opportunity to play in the SEC, walking on at Arkansas, where one of Blanton’s kickers, Cole Hedlund, was entering his senior season. Mazza presumed he could take over for Hedlund after a redshirt year.
But things didn’t pan out, Arkansas moved on from Brett Bielema and Mazza ultimately moved on from the Razorbacks. During the holiday break, Matt and his wife Kristen moved their son out of his Fayetteville dorm and drove back to Plano. Still unsure of his next move, Blake looked to find a stable FBS program that would offer him a legitimate shot to win the place-kicking job.
“He wasn’t quite sure and literally January 1 comes and goes and we still don’t know what he’s going to be doing,” Matt said.
WSU, a program on the rise, was losing a senior place-kicker in Powell and met all of Mazza’s criteria. No more than two weeks later, the kicker was enrolled in classes.
To an extent, Draguicevich can relate to Mazza because his road to WSU and the Pac-12 was anything but direct. The punter signed at Incarnate Word and had a monster 2016 season, earning All-Southland Conference honors. But Draguicevich figured he could do better, left IW and spent one year taking classes at Temple Junior College, a school without a football team, which meant the punter had to train on his own.
He often scaled fences to work out at local high schools when Hutto’s field was closed.
The following spring, new WSU special teams coach Matt Brock connected with Kohl and asked for the top punter on his list. Four syllables spilled out of Kohl’s mouth and Draguicevich made it official with the Cougars shortly thereafter.
Cool and confident
Leach and WSU stumbled upon two of the Pac-12’s top specialists and what distinguishes Draguicevich and Mazza from many of their their peers is an unwavering confidence that allows them to discard the bad kicks just as easily as the good ones.
“I think at those positions you better be confident, because it’s one of those positions if you’re not – if you go out there weak-minded at all you’ll get ate up,” Brock said. “Because you’re going to have a bad kick every once in a while. It’s just a fact of life.”
A great example, Brock noted, was Draguicevich’s sequence of punts last Saturday against Northern Colorado. The redshirt junior misfired on his first punt and watched it skip out of bounds just 24 yards from where it came off his foot. Draguicevich flushed the error and powered a 54-yarder downfield the next chance he got.
Despite cranking 13 of his punts 50 yards or more and placing 15 inside the 20-yard line, Draguicevich felt he failed the Cougars last season.
“We were No. 1 for four or five games and it kind of got to my head and I kind of lagged for a little bit,” he said. “So we ended up being 11th in the country. But this year I definitely think we can be first in the country and first in the Pac-12 for sure.”
It was also agonizing to see UCLA’s Stefan Flintoft barely edge him in net punting, at 45.8 yards per punt. Draguicevich was a hair behind at 45.7. That one-tenth of a point gnawed at him all offseason.
“I just want to be the best. It’s just what I’ve been taught since growing up and my dad played pro soccer,” he said. “… To see that, that really made me mad.”
There were a few kicks that had Mazza stewing, too. He left Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum fuming after USC blocked a 38-yard field goal that would’ve sent the game to overtime. Instead, the Cougars lost 39-36.
“That game was really tough for him because he had the high and low,” Matt Mazza said. “At the time, he’d made his career long in the first half. I think it was 50 yards. … So he had the experience, the pendulum swing of a high and a low in the same game.
“… His mindset is, ‘I’m going to miss, I’m not perfect,’ but he is also one of those kids that he watched that kick probably 150 times and he kept watching it over and over again on his phone.”
In a conversation last week, Mazza told his father, “I don’t have the nerves I had last year.”
“You look at Blake from last year, the thing him and I talked about was, continually improving just the pop in his leg,” Brock said. “Making sure he can get the lift on the ball with those longer yardage, those 50-plus yard field goals.”
The second-year special teams coach has a laundry list of goals for his punter, too, but his objectives are usually more unit-oriented.
“With (Oscar), it was the fact we need to always average, our goals is always over 40 yards net punt,” he said. “Not average, but net punt. So the reason I go with that, that’s a unit goal, that’s not just the punter. Because he goes out there, hits a 70-yard bomb, fans might love it. but nobody can cover it and that’s not a good thing.”
The specialists no longer live together, but they’re bunkmates when the Cougars play on the road and still thick as thieves.
Brock made the offseason call to take Trey Tinsley off kick-holding duty, replacing the quarterback with Draguicevich, figuring a kicker and a punter will invest more practice time than a kicker and a QB.
“Number one, it just comes down to reps,” Brock said. “Overall, I’ve always liked the fact you can have a punter hold, just because during practice that way they can be repping it. Whereas the quarterbacks, Trey or any other quarterback, holding is a second option for them.”
The new partnership – Draguicevich holding Mazza’s kicks – has been the butt of a few recent jokes. Draguicevich bemoaned he wasn’t named to the preseason watch list for the Mortell Award, which recognizes the country’s top holder.
Early in August, the punter posted a photo from his Instagram account of the two grinning, the punter’s arm wrapped around his buddy’s shoulder with the kicker flashing a thumbs up.
Draguicevich III’s caption read: “What starts with ‘T’ and ends with ‘S’… Texas Boys #WeMissWhataburger.”
Mazza shared a photo of him and Draguicevich last November, captioning the image: “Two Texas specialists who ended up in Washington. #GoCougs #TexasForever.”
“Texas guys, it just seems like if you’re from Texas and another guy’s from Texas, naturally it’s like there’s an immediate connection,” Brock said. “So I think that’s been a good thing.”
And not to mention, a wildly positive thing for the Cougars.
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