Conant worked his turn at double duty
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Conant worked his turn at double duty

The overworked expression for young football players is “waiting your turn” to climb the depth chart.

Air Force senior kicker and punter Will Conant, who played as a freshman on the JV team and as a sophomore on the varsity not at all, uses another phrase.

“You can see it as waiting for your turn,” he said. “But if you’re not working for your turn – kicking balls to see how you can get better – they might put you out there and you’re not ready.”

Conant, 6-foot-2, 215-pounder from Edmond (OK) Memorial, was ready when Air Force coach Troy Falcon put him out there as a junior for the 2013 season. He hit 11 of 13 field goals and 32 of 33 PATs his junior season. His percentage of 84.6 on field goals ranks fourth in school history.

On a team struggling to score points in last year’s agonizing 2-12 season, he connected from long range from 52 yards (Colgate), 48 and 52 (San Diego State) and 52 (New Mexico).

He’s improved that percentage to date with 7 of 8 (87.5) through this season’s 4-1 start, including a fourth career 50-yarder against Wyoming. Overall, he’s 18 of 21 (85.7).

Conant’s consistency helped lift Air Force to a 30-21 victory over Navy in the first leg of the Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series. The Falcons can clinch a return to the White House with a win over Army.

One turning point was the field goal Navy’s Nick Sloan missed from 38 yards as time elapsed at halftime and game remained tied 14-14.

Air Force opened the second half taking a 21-14 lead by driving 15 plays and 75 yards and scoring on a 3-yard pass from Kale Pearson to Garrett Griffin.

The teams subsequently exchanged three punts each and then Air Force forced a fourth consecutive Navy punt. This time the Falcons drove 13 plays and 60 yards to set up Conant for a 22-yard field goal that he drilled for at 24-14 with just 6:32 left in the game.

A missed field goal by Navy and successful field goal by Air Force had the Falcons sitting on a two-score lead.

Yes, a 22-yard field goal is essentially a PAT, but in a 7-point game it doesn’t count until the ball sails through the uprights.

“This year I’ve been really calm – I haven’t had any nerves,” Conant said. “I changed my thought process. I have the coaches’ trust; I don’t need to earn it any more. I just need to do it for the team. I don’t see stats, awards and recognition. My mind set is on doing it for the team. And that helps me relax.”

Something else unique about Conant’s senior season is he added the punting duties to place-kicking.

It’s rare in college to see one player handle kicking and punting duties. Kicking is crossing your hips with a swing of the leg on a soccer-style motion and the other is a straight on with your hips. The different techniques involved can twist fundamentals into the other and play with an athlete’s confidence. No one wants to send a kicker or punter onto the field lacking confidence.

“The coaches said punting was my position to lose.” Conant said. “They said, ‘We know you can punt wand we’ll give you this spot and see how you hold it.’ I did it all through high school, and it feels natural again. It is a challenge every day; we do field goal and punt back to back in practice, and I think we do that on purpose so that I can work on the transition.”

Conant’s six punts limited Navy to only one yard on returns with a long of 61 and an average of 43.8, but he wasn’t happy with his performance. You have to read the numbers more closely to understand.

The 61-yarder and a 49-yarder were both touchbacks and that reduced the net punt to 41 and 29.

The other four punts were fair catches; a 1-yard return on a 38-yarder and three fair catches on 38, 37 and 41.

“If you watch the film, you can see how upset I was after the 61 yarder,” Conant said. “I knew I kicked it too long.”

On the other punts, he was happy with his hang time of 4-plus seconds – his goal is 4.2 seconds – that prevented Navy from capitalizing on returns. But he was only satisfied with the yardage on the 41-yarder.

“I was probably least happy with my punting as I have been all year,” Conant said. “The conditions were tough with a nice wind on four of the six punts, and Navy was coming real fast with their rush; you’ve got to give them credit for their rush.

“My goals are to get off a 42-yard punt and 4.2 hang time. I came up short. I needed another 3 or 4 yards on those punts.”

He’s back to work at practice, working for his next turn.

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Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan

Tom Shanahan is an award-winning sportswriter and the author of "Raye of Light". Tom has also written for the San Diego Union-Tribune, Voice of San Diego, Chargers.com, Rivals.com, and Gameday Central. He has won multiple first-place awards from the San Diego Press Club and first place from the Copley News Service Ring of Truth Awards. The National Football Foundation/San Diego Chapter presented him its Distinguished American Award in 2003 and USA Track and Field’s San Diego Chapter its President’s Award in 2000.

Raye of Light: Jimmy Raye, Duffy Daugherty, the integration of college football and the 1965-66 Michigan State Spartans

By Tom Shanahan; Foreword by Tony Dungy; August Publications

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