By John Sleeper
SEATTLE – Derek McLaughlin knew they were watching him.
There they were, members of the California Golden Bears coaching staff, eyes on his every punt, every snap catch, every step. And they couldn’t have been impressed with what they saw.
“In warm-ups, I wasn’t kicking real well,” the Washington Huskies freshman punter said. “Their coaches probably thought, ‘He’s not hitting it real well; let’s line up (the punt returner) about 40 yards out.’ I don’t blame them. If I’d have been watching, it might have been 30.”
In the first quarter Saturday, the Huskies lined up in punt formation at their own 2-yard line. McLaughlin, 8 yards deep in the end zone, glanced behind him to make sure he knew where the end line was.
He felt good. Loose. He’d already unloaded one for 51 yards earlier in the game.
As per instructions, Jemeel Powell lined up at the Washington 40-yard line, expecting an average punt. It was a gorgeous day. Eighty degrees. No wind.
Even in the shadow of the goal posts, McLaughlin smiled inside.
“I knew I was going to kick it over his head, because he was real close, real tight,” he said. “He was standing about the 40, so he was expecting about a 30- or 35-yard punt. I knew I was going to hit it more than 40 yards.”
You have to hurry, McLaughlin thought. You’re in your own end zone and they’re going to want to come after you and block it. Just catch it and get it off.
The Husky line bent in a three-point stance at the line. McLaughlin raised his hands to receive the ball. Long snapper Ben Mahdavi whipped it back to him in a perfect, sharp spiral.
McLaughlin took two steps and dropped the ball to his right foot …
… It seemed an eternity since Sept. 8, when McLaughlin first put on a UW uniform. It was three days before the terrorist attacks on the East Coast, four days before a plane crash in Mexico killed more than a dozen Husky boosters. Before the decision to postpone Miami game to Nov. 24.
It also was before McLaughlin developed any skin tough enough to punt confidently before tens of thousands. Oh, sure, he had been an all-state punter at Mountain View High School in Mesa, Ariz. He’d learned perspective and comfort in the teachings of his Morman faith. He’d been an Eagle scout and was in the “Who’s Who American Teenagers” in 2000. He plans to go on a Morman mission after two seasons at Washington, then return to finish school two years later.
“I really enjoy my faith,” McLaughlin said. “One of things it does is help you see the big picture. If you’re having a bad day, you can think about it, pray and you feel the spirit. It’s a big comfort, because you’re never alone. There’s always someone to turn to.”
But little prepared him for his first game as a Husky, the stands at Husky Stadium stacked impossibly high with 74,080 people. And it hardly helped that his first game was against Michigan, one of the most storied football programs in the nation.
McLaughlin had come to Washington with high expectations fueled by a sizzling reputation as having a booming leg. He’d averaged 47 yards a kick as a senior. Against Mesa High, he averaged 51 yards a kick in a game in which he plunked three inside the 10-yard line.
But on Sept., 8, a very nervous Derek McLaughlin hit his first punt as a Husky just 40 yards. On his next attempt, the snap was high and he managed a 41-yarder.
But then, Michigan’s Marquise Walker shot out of his stance and blocked McLaughlin’s third attempt. The ball rolled out of the end zone for a safety, and Michigan grabbed a 2-0 lead.
It was the first time in his life that McLaughlin had ever had a punt blocked.
“You can only imagine what was going through his mind,” UW coach Rick Neuheisel said.
Nothing much, McLaughlin said.
“It kind of shook me up a little bit,” he said. “I went to the sidelines kind of shocked. Then they said, ‘Hey! You need to go kick the safety!’ I thought, ‘Oh, shoot!’ I was in my own little world there for a while. And it wasn’t a good one … “
… Powell’s eyes grew wide as he saw the ball launch off McLaughlin’s foot. He backpedaled, then turned and took off on a dead run. He gathered the ball at his own 24-yard line, 74 yards away from the line of scrimmage. Powell dodged and juked for a yard before Todd Elstrom tackled him.
“I knew it was going to go over his head,” McLaughlin said. “but I didn’t know it was going to go 30 or 40 yards over his head.”
McLaughlin’s kick was a school record. And suddenly, all the nervousness, all the doubts, all the pressures of competing in big-time college football melted.
“It takes a little time to get into a rhythm,” McLaughlin said. “Once you do that, it takes a lot of question out of the punt. It starts with good snaps. Ben’s done a great job in all three games. Michigan was me. I was kind of shaky. Against Idaho, I calmed down a lot. In California, everything was clicking.”
It’s not unlike anyone else in a similar position. Punting success is a relatively new phenomenon to McLaughlin. He averaged about 40 yards a kick as a junior. But in the offseason following his junior year, it all changed.
“It just started popping,” McLaughlin said. “Before, it was line drive, line drive, line drive. Then all of a sudden, it started hanging in the air for five seconds. I can’t explain it. It just happened.”
The Huskies hope it doesn’t stop happening anytime soon.