Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — The Missouri Tigers entered the fall knowing they would be opening the season with a new punter. They didn’t know they’d need a kickoff specialist, too.
True freshman Corey Fatony filled both those duties Saturday, to mostly positive results, in the Tigers’ season opener against Southeast Missouri State.
“He’s very, very mature for his age,” head coach Gary Pinkel said. “And for being a kicker.”
Fatony punted six times Saturday for 275 yards (45.8 avg.). His longest punt went 54 yards, and two were downed inside the SEMO 20-yard line.
“To be honest, I was more excited than nervous,” Fatony said. “I was too excited to be nervous.”
Fatony was recruited by Missouri to replace departed senior punter Christian Brinser. Brinser averaged 41.1 yards per punt on 144 career punts and ranks among the top 30 punters in the Southeastern Conference since 2000 in terms of average distance.
Fatony, a graduate of Franklin (Tenn.) High School, beat out junior walk-on Dayton Balvanz for the punting job.
“Me and Dayton, we’re actually pretty good buddies, so it’s just really friendly competition,” Fatony said. “Dayton’s a good punter, and so I think that when we compete we make each other better.”
Pinkel said the biggest improvement Fatony had to make at Missouri was the time it took him to get off his punts.
“He was just real slow in terms of what we needed him to be, but he fixed that quick,” Pinkel said. “… Some of the punts he had (Saturday) just were outstanding, and that’s encouraging.
“He’s a freshman. One game. And (it’s) a long season yet, but certainly I just like his competitiveness, and his confidence that he has. It’s not a cockiness in any way. It’s just a determination that he has.”
Fatony said players’ speed at the collegiate level really forced him to improve his get-off time.
“I kind of pretended my (behind) was on fire, just trying to get it off,” he said.
Fatony had the added duty of handling kickoffs Saturday because senior kicker Andrew Baggett is still recovering from a back injury. Fatony had four touchbacks against SEMO, including a season-opening kickoff that landed deep in the end zone.
The Redhawks averaged a starting field position of the 27-yard line on Fatony’s kickoffs — though one was returned to the 39-yard line, and one sailed out of play for a penalty.
“Kickoffs could have been better,” Fatony said. “I kicked one out of bounds, and obviously we’ve got to eliminate those mental errors.”
Fatony is only the fourth Missouri special-teams player to be given a scholarship as an incoming freshman under Pinkel and the first since punter Jake Harry in 2007.
Fatony impressed as a high-school punter — he averaged 40.9 yards per punt his junior year — but his scholarship offer is also a sign of the times. More importance is being placed on specialists in college football, and Missouri has another, kicker Tucker McCann, coming in on scholarship next year.
“When I was in Washington, we had a bunch of great kickers and punters. We never put a guy on scholarship ever,” Pinkel said. “You had to come in and earn it, but I think the biggest difference now is the development of these kickers and punters just like quarterbacks and receivers and skill players. They’re in camps all over the place, so that people get to see them, and I think that’s the same thing with kicking. Those guys are in camps and you know about them when they’re freshmen if they’ve got strong legs.”
Fatony made his mark at Kohl’s Kicking Camp, which ranked him as the fifth-best high school punter in last year’s senior class.
“I think coaches are realizing that kicking and punting is becoming more important,” Fatony said. “There’s all these camps that you can go to get at the top level.”
Fatony was one of eight true freshmen on Missouri’s depth chart for the season opener, all of whom saw the field Saturday. Only five freshmen recorded playing time for the Tigers all of last season.
“Having guys come in and just play is kind of a cool thing, really,” Fatony said.
Fatony was the only freshman starter listed, though defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr. will be a co-starter with junior Josh Augusta for Missouri’s upcoming game at Arkansas State.
Freshman quarterback Drew Lock, who led the Tigers to 10 points on three drives Saturday, likes what his recruiting class has to offer.
“And that’s not even what’s being shown, obviously,” he said. “The guys that aren’t even on the field right now, they just have really good guys ahead of them. We have some true studs in our class right now, and I can’t wait to see us all eventually get on the field at the same time and see what happens here at good ol’ Missouri.”
Pinkel said the eight freshmen on the depth chart are likely the only ones who will contribute this year, though freshman receiver Justin Smith could make a push to skip his redshirt season.
The receiving corps is already flooded with youth — four receivers made their first career catches Saturday — but Emanuel Hall is currently the only true freshman receiver on the depth chart.
Hall is also impressed with the players he came in with.
“We have a lot of guys that are really talented, and young talent’s always good,” he said. “I think that a lot of guys getting experience this year will help us build in future years.”