Auburn, Ala.--Ryan Shoemaker, Auburn's returning starter at punter and an All-SEC Freshman last season, faces a major challenge for his starting job when the Tigers begin preseason football practice in August.
Last year he was pushed for the assignment by freshman walk-on Patrick Tatum, who is back to make another run at the starting job after showing promise in spot duty. However, both Shoemaker and Tatum face competition from another walk-on who caught the attention of Tommy Tuberville and his coaching staff in spring drills.
"You are probably going to laugh, but I didn't play high school football," Clinton Durst tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "I grew up playing travel soccer. Soccer was my life. I traveled to Brazil three times to play soccer and played all through high school. That is where I developed my leg from."
That leg, which was the strongest of the three punters in spring drills, helped him win special teams Most Valuable Player honors in Auburn's A-Day Game as he averaged 48.3 yards on three punts with excellent hang time. Shoemaker averaged 43.5 yards on his four punts in the spring game and Tatum's average was 38.3 yards on three punts.
Durst, who is six-foot-two, 188 pounds from Fort Walton Beach High School in Florida, used to kick the football for fun prior to heading to college. "I would go out there with a couple of my buddies who played," he recalls. "They tried to get me to play for a couple of years to come out there and kick. I never did. I finally got out there and I was hitting the ball well, but I was more focused on soccer because my brother played professional soccer and I was going to try to do that."
The punter, who will be a redshirt freshman in eligibility this fall, says Auburn's head football coach, Tommy Tuberville, encouraged him to walk on for spring training this year and take a shot if that was what he wanted to do. "I decided to come up and meet Coach Tubs," Durst notes. "He told me to give it a shot and it is working out.
"I have always been kind of an Auburn fan," says Durst, who is a marketing major. "It is a good program, a good school. I was going to go into building science, but I decided not to and that is part of the reason why I came to Auburn. I came up and visited the campus and I love it. Everybody is nice. There are good people here. It is a great atmosphere."
After getting himself established as a student at Auburn, Durst participated in spring training and punted the ball well enough in practice to get a chance to do it before around 35,000 fans at Auburn's A-Day Game.
Many Auburn fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium that day were likely were wondering who the walk-on was who was booming his punts high and deep in the spring game. When asked if that was the first football game he had played in, Durst smiles and says, "Yes sir. It was funny. Everybody was asking me, ‘Where did you play football?' I told them I had never played. I have played in front of big crowds when I traveled to South America in front of 25,000 or 30,000 so I am used to the noise."
Tuberville notes that he likes what he has seen from the walk-on and says there should be a good battle for the starting position this season as the Tigers prepare for their August 30th home opener against Louisiana-Monroe, a team which beat the University of Alabama last season.
Durst is on campus taking classes and working out with his teammates this summer. He notes that he is concentrating on his hang-time. He wants the football to stay in the air for at least 4.7 seconds before a return man has a chance to catch the football.
"You can hit a 55-yard punt with a four-second hang time, but then you are going to have to face somebody like Devin Hester or Reggie Bush on a return so I work on my hang time in practice," he says. "If I can average mid-40s and have a 4.7-plus hang time on every punt, I will be happy."
Durst says his new teammates have been supportive, even though he never played high school football. "I really have been accepted," he says. "My father told me that there are going to be guys who say, ‘He's just another walk-on and I that I would have to go out there and prove myself.' After I punted well, after they saw that I got a lot of respect."
The walk-on says his teammates have high expectations for the 2008 season and he would love to contribute as the starting punter. He notes that he plans to do whatever he can to play on Saturdays this year. "I just go out there every day to work hard and do what I am supposed to and work on my technique," he says.
His spring performance was enough to put Durst number two on the depth chart behind Shoemaker, setting the stage for what should be a good competition when the Tigers take the practice field again in less than two months.