Last spring, Nick Kokich was busy with an internship during much of the day and so he was on a workout schedule separate from his Eastern Washington teammates.
He still got his lifts in, but he was often alone. It also meant he couldn’t make every team meeting.
One day, when teammates started coming in to congratulate Kokich, he didn’t quite know why.
Then he got the news: He had been chosen as one the Eagles’ five team captains.
“(Coach Aaron) Best said it was mainly because I am a big lead-by-example guy,” Kokich said. “That stems from my competitiveness. I don’t like anyone beating me.”
Kokich has been, for the past five seasons, Eastern Washington’s primary punter. With 202 career punts, he ranks third all time at Eastern. His punting average of 41.3 has him tied for fifth all time, one-10th behind fourth-ranked Jordan Dascalo.
He has one more game – Saturday at Roos Field in Cheney versus Northern Arizona (4-6, 4-3 Big Sky) – to increase that. But more notably to Kokich, he has one more game to give the Eagles (4-6, 3-4) his best and to do what he can to contribute to a victory.
“It’s been quite a ride,” Kokich said on Tuesday. “It’s a little bit sad, but all good things must come to an end at some point.”
Since making his debut as a true freshman in 2019, Kokich has played in 49 games. With one more, he will climb into a logjam of players – including former teammates Jack Sendelbach and Dennis Merritt – who have played in 50 games at Eastern. Tristen Taylor made a program-best 60 appearances from 2016 to 2021.
Kokich did his best – and by far his most – work in 2022, when he punted 55 times for an average of 43.8 yards, with just two touchbacks and 14 downed inside the 20-yard line. That earned him All-Big Sky second-team recognition and the preseason nod for All-Big Sky punter heading into this season.
Through 10 games, his average is down slightly (to 42.9 yards per punt) and has the fifth-most punts inside the 20 with 15.
But since he arrived in 2019, Kokich’s contributions to the team have been significant, especially among the specialists.
“We wanted to have a good year to send Kokich out right,” EWU redshirt sophomore kicker Jackson Cleaver said. “He deserves a lot. I can’t thank him enough for what he’s done for me as a player and as a person. He’s just a genuine human being who cares and always wants to get better.”
Cleaver, who has handled kickoffs and three field-goal attempts this season, said he remembers the early morning workouts last offseason, when, at 5:30, “nobody had the energy he had.”
“He went above and beyond this offseason,” Cleaver said. “He really put in the work.”
Cleaver and Kokich both said that the way Eastern incorporates specialists defies the stereotype of kickers as outcasts, in that they do all the running and all the lifts.
Cleaver conceded that other players practice more than the specialists do, but he and the others – including redshirt freshman kick Soren McKee, freshman punters Brandon Smith and Brady Peterson, as well as long snappers Tyson Jacobson and Aaron Estrada – try to be as engaged with the team as possible.
In short, they’re not just a plus-seven on the roster.
“We’re a part of the 105,” Cleaver said.
Head coach Aaron Best, someone Kokich said he sees as a second father, was also a long snapper while at Eastern. It’s something Best makes known from time to time, Kokich said, but it’s also been significant in how the team views specialists.
“Every once in a while he’ll throw a snap,” Kokich said. “He’s the coach that the specialists meet with on a daily basis. He keeps us in line.”
But Cleaver said that’s something Kokich does as well, both for others and for Kokich himself.
“Best has a big emphasis on perfecting our craft,” Cleaver said. “Nick has really taken that to heart.”
Kokich fulfilled all three of the kicking roles – field goals, kickoffs and punting – at Bellarmine Prep in Tacoma, but he was especially drawn to punting for a number of reasons. For one, it’s nice to kick the ball far. He also doesn’t face the same pressure of making a fourth-quarter kick. And, Kokich said, he loves the creativity involved.
“I’m proud of the number of clubs in my bag, if you will,” Kokich said, using a golf metaphor.
There’s the traditional spiral, or the one that spins backward when it lands (he hopes) near the goal line. There’s the roll-out punt, something more like a rugby kick. All of these are kicks Kokich has spent time studying and perfecting so that when it comes to the kick, it is muscle memory as much as possible.
While that may be similar to how other football players prepare, there are still elements that are different.
Two of those differences, Kokich said, are that specialists don’t react by instinct and they don’t have a lot of other plays to make up for any mistakes. They are also noticed much more when they do something wrong than when they do something right.
So much, too, is about mechanics. Cleaver likened it to being a pitcher in that every part of the windup and delivery has to work together, and if you change one aspect, you have to change everything. It makes adjusting a bit more complicated.
But when he looks at Kokich, Cleaver sees someone who has put it all together through hours of meticulous practice.
“He’s one of the best in the nation when it comes to ball-to-foot timing,” Cleaver said. “And the good thing with him, you can look at his bad punt, you can look at his next punt that’s a rocket, it’s the same swing. It’s the same ball movement. All it was was placement on the foot.”
It remains to be seen who will replace Kokich next season. Cleaver, Smith and Peterson are all candidates.
“It’s very hard to fill his shoes,” Cleaver said. “A lot of it is going to be in the offseason: Who is going to step up?”
Although Saturday will be Kokich’s last game playing at Eastern, he said he plans to stick around. He has a job lined up in Spokane, and he said he’s excited to attend every home game.
“It’s definitely going to be something that’s hard to step away from,” Kokich said. “I’ve felt loved throughout the entire process, even when I wasn’t fantastic. Everybody on the team, whether that be back in 2021 with (Eric) Barriere, someone who is larger than life, he made me feel special, like I was a part of something.
“I’ve loved every experience, every coach, every punt, and every time I step on the field is a blessing.”