PULLMAN – Coming into the 2021 season, Washington State’s place-kicker had never appeared in a game at the collegiate level. The Cougars’ punter had never played a game of American football.
By the end of the year, Dean Janikowski and Nick Haberer had become one of the top special-teams duos in the Pac-12.
Janikowski emerged as an accurate midrange kicker and led the conference in field-goal percentage (82.4%) en route to a first-team All-Pac-12 nod. He landed on the preseason all-conference first team last month.
Haberer, a native of Australia, produced consistent results as a true freshman in 2021 despite inexperience and a serious midseason injury. He was named to the Football Writers Association’s freshman All-America team.
WSU’s kicking specialists found their feet last year. Now that they have settled in, Janikowski and Haberer appear poised to take another step.
The Cougars’ punting and kicking units have been sharp throughout this month’s preseason practices – their efficiency on field-goal attempts, most noticeably. Janikowski estimates that he has converted “right around 90%” of his field-goal tries over the past three weeks.
“We’ve given him a ton of reps,” first-year special teams coordinator Nick Whitworth said Tuesday after practice at Rogers Field. “We’ve put him in a lot of situations – short, long – and he’s done a really, really good job with it.”
By our count, Janikowski has only missed once during full-team periods.
“We’ve just been really accurate this fall,” the fourth-year sophomore said.
“A lot of it has been confidence, especially with my faith – just realizing that God’s got me. I don’t need to stress. I’m playing a kid’s game. It doesn’t have to be too serious, and that’s really just helped me be so consistent this fall.
“(Haberer) has definitely helped me a lot, too,” Janikowski added of his snap-holder and close friend. “Australians are just so happy, and you see him show up every single day with a smile on his face and realize – have fun with it. Don’t get so stressed. Go out there and kick a ball, because that’s all we’re doing.”
Janikowski (no relation to former longtime NFL kicker Sebastian Janikowski) is perfect this month on field-goal attempts beyond 50 yards. He set a preseason best with a 52-yarder early last week and matched it a couple of days later.
His longest made field goal last season came from 41 yards out.
“Last year, I was ready to go further back, but it was just the situations we were put in,” he said. “I’m definitely excited to start stretching the leg back, hopefully get a bit further.”
Janikowski, a former walk-on, came up short in a position battle last year at fall camp, but starting kicker Andrew Boyle – now suiting up for Oregon – missed WSU’s opener with an injury. Janikowski filled in, then kept the job the rest of the way. He went 14 of 17 on field-goal attempts and 39 of 41 on extra-point kicks.
“Coming in last year, he wasn’t starting and he just got put in there, put in the deep end – kinda like me,” Haberer said of Janikowski. “It was my first game and it was his first game. We just looked at each other and were like, ‘It’s our time. Let’s get it done.’ Ever since then, he’s just progressed and progressed. This year, he’s looking unbelievable.”
Haberer, who grew up playing Aussie rules football, feels far more comfortable with the American version of the sport entering his second year overseas.
“It’s a lot different now,” he said. “I have the experience of games under my belt. Last year, it was a bit of a roller-coaster ride.
“Year 2 is going to be a good stepping stone for me to really mature in the game. I understand what’s going on now – why flags are thrown, what’s going on in the game and when I have to go in, instead of just being a headless chicken running around.”
Employing a mix of traditional American punts and Aussie-style rollouts, Haberer led the Pac-12 in fair catches (28) and averaged a respectable 42.8 yards per attempt last season.
The former Australian Football League player fractured his nondominant ankle and tore several ligaments Oct. 16 against Stanford, but he never missed a game . Haberer taped up his planting foot every week and continued to punt effectively as he soldiered through the pain for six more games.
“The mental toughness that kinda bred in me is going to be a good thing,” Haberer said. “Having to go through adversity like that only strengthens a person. … I feel like it’s going to be a lot better going into the season not having a broken ankle, being healthy, having two feet.”
Haberer improved his punting range and precision this off-season after being a limited participant at spring camp.
He put extra time into tightening the spiral on his two-step, American-style punts to add hang time and better control his ball placement.
“To progress into the league, you need to have a good spiral punt,” he said. “I feel like I’ve taken strides in that. It’s obviously not what I’m used to, coming from an AFL background. We do ‘end-over-end’ kicks and drive them more.”
Whitworth commended Haberer for his work ethic outside of practice, his willingness to improve in every aspect of his new sport – “the knowledge, the technique, the steps, the patterns, the timing, the rhythm – I could go on and on,” Whitworth said.
“He loves to get out there and actually work at it. … He’s been a joy to work with.”
Haberer and Janikowski formed an immediate friendship at WSU. The two are housemates. They vacationed with each other twice earlier this year – Haberer visited Janikowski’s hometown near San Diego in the spring, then Janikowski made a trip to Queensland, Australia, in the summer.
“Dean’s been there since Day 1 for me,” Haberer said. “He took me under his wing and showed me America. We’ve had a close bond since the beginning, basically.”
Sideline antics and comedic celebrations after field goals have been common this preseason among WSU’s specialists. Asked to describe the personality of the special-teams room, Haberer said: “We’re a goofy bunch. We like to have fun, because if we’re feeling stressed, that’s when we don’t perform well. So, we like to destress by all having a laugh, having a good time. When it comes down to it, obviously we lock in. We only have one shot to really do our jobs.”
Simon Samarzich is entering his fourth consecutive season as WSU’s long snapper on punts. The Cougars are “still evaluating” two special-teams positions: field-goal snapper and kickoff specialist. Samarzich and true freshman Luca Rodarte are the only long snappers listed on the roster. Colton Theaker, who played juco ball last season after two years as Cal Poly’s starting kicker, is competing with Janikowski for kickoff duties. Theaker is expected to be WSU’s backup placekicker and punter this season.
“Colton comes in with a big leg and he’s done a good job … in all three realms,” Whitworth said. “Dean’s done a great job in the offseason in the weight room, with his strength and the ability to push the ball downfield.”
Whitworth hasn’t made a final decision on who will be returning kicks and punts this season, but he named a couple of likely candidates: standout slot receivers Lincoln Victor and Renard Bell.
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