Perfect Kicker Tyler Davis Took A Winding Road To PSU

Davis stands as the most accurate place-kicker in Nittany Lion history. You'll be surprised to learn how the former college soccer player landed in Happy Valley.

Tyler Davis remembers driving home by himself after having dinner with a friend on the night of Feb. 21, 2011. He remembers that he was “like two minutes from (his) house” when he hit a patch of ice.

The next thing he remembers is lying in a hospital bed, with his family standing over him. He had a concussion and a broken jaw, and 50-some stitches in the left side of his face. He would need surgery on his lip, and he took his meals through a straw for a while.

Davis, who later learned that his car had flipped and hit a tree, missed a few weeks of classes at St. Charles (Ill.) North High School, where he was a sophomore. Even then, he wasn’t quite right; the blow to his head had made it difficult for him to process information.

“I was asking the same questions, like, 100 times a day,” he said.

In the months that followed he attended school for an hour or two each day, then returned home, where he received one-on-one instruction from a tutor.

In time things returned to normal. It nonetheless seems fair to wonder about the effects of an incident like that over the long haul, how it might alter the way someone looks at life.

“I guess it’s just, cherish everything you have,” Davis said recently. “I guess it’s just cherishing what I have, and being really appreciative of it.”

Including, of course, his dreams.

He realized one, and even exceeded it, by becoming Penn State’s regular kicker midway through last season — despite never having kicked in a football game on any level prior to that, and despite taking up his specialty only the year before.

And not only that, but the 22-year-old redshirt junior has nailed his first 18 field goal attempts (8-for-8 last year, 10-for-10 this year) to break the school record for consecutive makes. He has also been successful on all 33 of his conversion tries.

“I think he’s really showed (himself) to be one of the better kickers in the conference, if not the country,” coach James Franklin said.

Davis and Southern Mississippi’s Parker Shaunfield have the most field goal attempts among the eight FBS kickers who have been perfect this season, and Davis’ 49 points are fourth-most in the Big Ten, 14th-most in the FBS.

Franklin did point out that the coaching staff has “done a good job of putting him in position to be successful,” and that is true: Only three of Davis’ 18 tries have been 40 yards or longer, and his longest is 42, last year against Illinois.

Still, he has answered the bell every time.

“I’m not surprised at all,” said Chris Nendick, a kicking instructor who began working with Davis in 2014, when he made the transition from soccer star — he spent a year on scholarship at Bradley — to football player.

Nendick, who once kicked at Northern Illinois, said Davis’ mechanics were surprisingly advanced when he started out in football, and that he was coachable and diligent.

“I think one thing that was evident when he made this transition, he didn’t want to just go and be a field goal kicker,” said Eric Willson, who coached Davis in high school. “He wanted to be great at what he does. … He wanted to be the man.”

That was never truer than on Oct. 1, when Davis nailed a game-tying 40-yard field goal with two seconds left in regulation against Minnesota, setting the stage for the Lions’ 29-26 overtime victory.

It was far and away the most stressful kick of his career to date, but he said he tried to treat it like any other — that he found a spot on the scoreboard to aim for, sought to avoid rushing himself, etc.

“I think just sticking to your fundamentals,” he said, “makes the emotion kind of go away — just going out there and if it’s a big kick, just thinking about, ‘All right, you know what to do.’ ” 

He recalls his holder, Chris Gulla, giving him a little clap as they took the field that day.

“We’re good,” Gulla said. “We’ve got this.”

The Gophers called a timeout, but no matter.

“I just stayed focused,” Davis said, “and didn’t try to treat it like it was more than it was.”

And he drilled it.

Franklin said after the game that he never doubted Davis; if everybody else on the field-goal unit held up their end of the bargain, he was certain his kicker would do the same. Watching from afar, Nendick was thinking that way, too.

“He’s the fourth and final piece,” he said of Davis, “and as long as they do their job, I’m pretty confident that he’s going to do his job.”

Harvey Levine/FOS

Even with all eyes on him.

“He was kind of like that on the soccer field, too,” Willson said. “Any kind of high-pressure situations, he wasn’t a kid to shy away from that. He was a kid who said, ‘Give me the ball and let me do what I do.’ ” 

Willson, in fact, called Davis “probably one of, if not the best, soccer players” he has coached in 13 years at St. Charles North, located in a town about an hour west of Chicago. Davis played for Willson as a freshman and junior, the latter months after his accident. The other two years he played for Sockers FC Chicago, a year-round program for “the best of the best” in the state, according to Willson.

The club bills itself on its web site as Illinois’ only feeder program for the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USSDA) and Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), and Davis was an adherent from his middle-school days forward. He would parlay that into his scholarship to Bradley, where he played 12 games as a freshman in 2013. His only goal that fall was a game-winner, in sudden death against Massachusetts.

The following summer he began kicking a football with fellow St. Charles native Alec Eickert, once the kicker at Oregon.

“It was kind of like just a joke,” Davis said, “but he was saying, ‘No, you’re actually good.’ ”

Eickert referred him to Nendick, one of the Midwest’s foremost kicking instructors.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I actually believe in this kid,’ ” Nendick said. “He’s one of the best kids that I’ve seen in a long time.”

He gave Davis some pointers, then encouraged him to attend a scouting camp at Lewis University, some 45 minutes from St. Charles. Davis, barely two weeks into this new venture, went in with low expectations. There were about 50 other hopefuls, high school kids and transfers alike, and all of them surely had more experience than he did.

“And just like Tyler does, the kid was automatic,” Nendick said. “He was killing the ball.”

He won the kickoff and field goal competitions, which led to thoughts of transferring. Maybe, he thought, he could double up with soccer and football at another school, since Bradley does not offer the latter sport.

There, he said, “The soccer was great. I just didn’t love the school. It’s a pretty small school. Since I was younger I kind of wanted a bigger college atmosphere.”

So he sought a release from his scholarship, but it was denied by coach Jim DeRose. Davis is not sure why, but believes it is at least partially because he made his request well after the school year ended. (DeRose did not respond to a phone message.)

That meant that if Davis wanted to leave, he could only play football elsewhere. Recruiters had not been allowed to attend the camp at Lewis per NCAA rules, but he now had video to circulate, and he did so, throughout the ACC and Big Ten. Davis wound up visiting Ohio State and Indiana, in addition to Penn State.

He enrolled at PSU in January 2015, and made the team as a preferred walk-on. He played in the first football game of his life on Oct. 3 of that year, against Army. By the end of that month he had supplanted Joey Julius as the regular on placements.

The rest is history, if only to a point. The reality is that Davis — who, by the way, is still not on scholarship — will miss a kick someday. Everybody does.

“I’ve never really thought about that,” he said. “I’ve missed in practice, obviously, and I just come back and don’t worry about it too much, just make the next kick.”

It is, after all, his dream. It can end however he wants.

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