When LSU special teams coordinator Joe Robinson found the punter he wanted, it was neither from a high school highlights tape nor a walk-on tryout. Instead, the Tiger staff took to a junior college in Kansas.
When then sophomore Derek Helton noticed Robinson hanging around practices in 2008, the punter knew that good news was likely in store.
“Big colleges don’t go out and recruit junior college guys unless they want them to come in and play,” Helton said. “They don’t even take a lot of JUCO guys; and then kicker and punters, they don’t get looked at either. For me to be a JUCO punter at LSU, that is cool.”
Helton’s story, however, has an added twist. The Hoyt, Kan. native did not start playing football until his junior year of high school. After two seasons of punting at Jefferson West High, he came up empty on college offers.
With hopes of finding an alternate way to fund his education, Helton’s parents encouraged him to stick with football at Fort Scott, the local community college.
As a freshman, Helton averaged 35.6 yards on 69 punts, with none blocked and a long of 64. That was good enough to attract the attention of the LSU staff; and the rest, Helton said, was history.
“Robinson was the one who would call, and I talked to him a bunch,” he said. “I called the coaches once a week to see how things were going, and it went from there. I came in for a visit in July, and I got offered and committed. It was just the right fit for me.”
On that visit, Miles asked Helton a question that, come Saturday, he will provide an answer to.
“Coach asked if I was ready to be his punter,” Helton said. “I did not think it would work out as well as it did, but is has been cool so far. I will hold for [Josh] Jasper [on kicks] and I will punt.”
Miles has had high praise for Helton following preseason camp; and according to Helton, every facet of his game is on point.
“With my hang time, a good punt is usually 44 or 45-plus yards,” he said. “I average a 4.5 [hang time], and that is really good and a tough average for a lot of guys. If I go out there relaxed and I just kick, I can hit them pretty well.”
From a small high school to junior college, Helton admitted that he has not punted in front of many crowded stadiums during his four years of football. Thankfully, the junior’s opening act in Seattle should provide a smooth transition into the 90,000-plus that wait in Death Valley on Sept. 12 against Vanderbilt.
“We played Butler County, another JUCO in our league, and their was five, maybe 10 [thousand] at the most,” Helton said. “I don’t think it will be a factor, because I tend to tune the crowd out. If you count the 35 [thousand] at the spring game, I did not feel too much pressure then. I had a lot of fun with it.
“It is how you look at it,” he added. “To me, a lot of people will be fun. I get pumped up for that.”
A former teammate of current LSU offensive line commitment Jermarcus “Yoshi” Hardrick, Helton said that Robinson has the Tigers in line for a double-dose of Fort Scott.
“I talk to Yoshi once or twice a week, and he is really excited about getting down here,” Helton said. “When he found out that I committed, he wanted to as well. If he continues to work hard, he has potential. I think he can play here and be a big impact, because Yoshi is just a monster that pancakes every guy, every other play.