East Carolina punter Worth Gregory possesses an NCAA Football Championship ring, but he never stepped foot on the field for a collegiate game until a few weeks ago.
Gregory's first collegiate appearance came on August 30, 2014 during ECU's season opener versus North Carolina Central. His coaches turned to him for the first time in the first quarter and he punted the ball 40 yards to NCCU's 26-yard line.
It all began about four years prior. He played on the offensive and defensive sides of the ball as a wide receiver and safety all four years at Fort Mill (S.C.). It wasn't until the end of his junior year that he dabbled with special teams as a punter.
“I met with (kicking and punting instructor) Dan Orner out in Charlotte,” said the 21-year-old Gregory. “We worked a lot. I went to a couple kicking camps with him. He played at UNC, so he got me the hookup there. From there, it just started rolling after my senior season.”
Orner holds the North Carolina record for longest field goal after kicking a 55 yarder in the Tar Heels' 30-22 victory over Syracuse on September 7, 2002. That game featured his first three collegiate field-goal attempts, which were all converted 50-yard shots that tied the NCAA record.
Working with Orner proved to be helpful, to say the least. Even though he didn't play the position until later in high school, Gregory didn't take long to get on the recruitment radar for some schools.
“I went to a couple of camps my junior summer and that's when they started noticing me and asking where I'd been,” said Gregory. “I told them I had just started punting and they were really surprised. They saw a lot of upside in me.”
It was almost like Gregory gave it a shot one day and realized he could make something out of it.
“We needed a punter and my dad asked me if I could kick,” said Gregory. “I went out and kicked and we said, 'I guess that's alright.' We went and met with Dan and he was surprised with all my athleticism and stuff like that. We knew we could really excel at that.”
After high school, Gregory ended up at Alabama, even though the Crimson Tide wasn't always his planned destination throughout his recruitment. There was a three or four month period where he had committed to South Carolina and planned on being a Gamecock.
“I always thought I was going to go (to South Carolina),” said Gregory. “At the last second, they started recruiting another guy. I told them that, if they were going to do that, I wasn't going to sit out at a school like that.”
From there, he joined Alabama's roster as a preferred walk-on under head coach Nick Saban. He had the unique opportunity to work with Cody Mandell, who played for the Dallas Cowboys for a brief period, and Carson Tinker, who is a long snapper for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
“I learned stuff like discipline. A bunch of NFL guys, to see the way they work and the way they tick helped me out coming here,” said Gregory. “It was much more like a business there. It was a lot more different...Here, (head coach) Ruffin McNeill stresses the family aspect. You hear him say it a lot, but he really means it. There's no one like him.”
|Gregory punts the ball versus Virginia Tech.|
|(Photo by Kat Jessick/Inside ECU Sports)|
The entire culture at Alabama is different from what Gregory is now experiencing in Greenville. Greek Life is a big part of the social life at Alabama, which is how Gregory ended up joining Alabama's Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter.
When Gregory finally made the decision to transfer to somewhere he'd get playing time, he considered taking his punting services to Maryland, UNC and ECU.
“It was really a toss up because we didn't know if I could play right away because of all the NCAA regulations,” said Gregory. “A guy like (Texas A&M transfer placekicker) Davis Plowman, who did the same thing I did, got to play right away.”
Gregory was supposed to be an unrecruited walk-on at first, but things changed and he became a recruited walk-on. That's why he ended up sitting out for a season. The Tar Heels told him he wouldn't be able to enroll until this past spring because it was so late when he decided to depart Alabama.
ECU had been on Gregory's radar since his junior year of high school. He loved the atmosphere, so he got in contact with special teams coordinator Kirk Doll. The staff reviewed his film from practice and the rest is history.
Gregory was frustrated that he had to wait for so long to make his first collegiate appearance. In retrospect, however, he wasn't too upset with the path he took. In fact, he's glad he did it.
|Gregory mid-punt versus South Carolina. Virginia Tech.|
|(Photo by Kat Jessick/Inside ECU Sports)|
“There's a reason God had me do it,” said Gregory. “Guys like (punter) Trent Tignor and (long snapper) Charlie Coggins helped lead me through it. There's a reason I needed to sit out that year and I'm happy I did it.”
Everything led up to the moment when Gregory first took the field in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium versus NCCU.
“I loved it. It was everything I expected it to be,” said Gregory with a smile on his face. “I waited almost two and a half years to play college football. I was nervous. I can't lie. It was awesome. I loved it.”
You would never guess that Gregory is only a few games into his college career. He's punted 13 times for 625 yards (48.1 average) through the first four games of the season. Doll had seen his work for a year, so he had his own expectations for Gregory's debut.
“Since last year, we had him do a lot of work for us versus our look teams,” said Doll. “We knew there was talent there and it was a matter of what he's going to do when the pressure is on. He's handled some things really well and there are some other things we want him to work on.”
Looking forward, Gregory sees room for improvement, too.
“I would give myself a C-plus, maybe,” said Gregory of his performance through the first-four games. “I don't think I'm where I want to be right now. The coaches know that and they know I can be a lot better than I am. I can't wait to be able to show everyone what I really can do.”
Gregory has grown because of his unique path to the field and those around him understand that. If anything, it's made him a better player and a better all-around person, which can only add to his potential.
“Right now, I would say he's come a long way in his maturity,” said Doll. “I think that's been a big improvement for him since we first started our relationship.”