Shayne Graham understands what it takes to kick one’s way into the NFL and stay there. He did it for 15 seasons, with 10 different teams.
Graham also remembers what’s it like to perform literally in the shadow of Bill Belichick. He did that midway through 2010.
So when asked about Quinn Nordin, the rookie kicker seeking to earn Belichick’s trust and beat out two NFL veterans, Graham knows of what he speaks. And to him, it starts with absorbing an information overload.
“There are so many details he’s going to learn that he never [imagined] he needed to know,” says Graham, who expects Nordin to be tried and tested as never before.
The same way Graham was in his half-season spelling an injured Stephen Gostkowski in 2010. Like the moment his mettle was measured on the practice field, with Belichick lurking just a few steps behind.
Eleven years later, Graham still pictures Belichick’s dark silhouette, as the shadow of the coach’s head bobs back and forth, extending to holder Zoltan Mesko. He also hears Belichick’s tone, angling to get under his skin.
“Is … this … bothering … you … Graham?”
“Is … this … bothering … you … Graham?”
“Is … this … bothering … you … Graham?”
Graham slowly repeats the line into his cell phone, momentarily abandoning the drawl of his native Southwestern Virginia in favor of a droll imitation of Belichick. He is speaking from the University of Florida, where Shayne now coaches and has just entertained a high school recruit visiting from Indiana.
That kid, accompanied by his mom, Valeri, was A.J. Vinatieri. Their timing is practically perfect. Because Graham’s shadow story concludes with a caveat relevant to the greatest kicker of all time – A.J.’s dad, Adam – and the greatest coach of all time.
Give in to the goading, under the glare of Belichick’s gaze, and the words only grow harsher.
The elder Vinatieri didn’t. And by dealing with daily doses of Belichick — and before him, Bill Parcells — Graham believes, developed the thick skin and resiliency needed to seal victory in “Snow Bowls” and Super Bowls.
For his sake, Graham was also good enough to get the kinder, gentler side of Bill most of the time. Converting kicks in practices, then games, he finished 14-for-14 on field goals as a Patriot. Though not, as he notes, without a little uneasiness.
Imagine if a then 32-year-old on his eighth NFL stop can be made uncomfortable, what it must be like today for a 22-year-old taking his first swings at a roster spot.
In his first local press availability, Nordin was loath to say, giving short replies long on cliches. He said 16 words about what’s stood out most in his first Foxborough experience.
“Being able to learn from everyone in the building,” Nordin answered. “I think that’s the most important thing.”
The lone insight he allowed had to do with the difference between a college football and an NFL K-ball. Like everything else, it’s bigger in the pro’s. Otherwise, Nordin spoke of listening and learning, grinding and improving. Naturally, one day at a time.
Which, to Nordin’s credit, showed that he’s already mastered an essential detail of being a Patriots rookie. Let the coaches speak to your performance. And leave most of what’s really going through your mind unsaid.
But what Nordin hasn’t left to the imagination is the strength of his right leg, which was obvious to all in this spring’s first two practices open to reporters. From 50 yards away, Nordin turned heads with towering kicks driven between and (well) beyond the uprights, including a special narrow goalpost.
Back in January, he drove the ball similarly in front of Graham at the Gators’ indoor facility.
“I don’t know if I’ve seen a guy hit the ball with that much authority,” Graham said. “I don’t know that I’ve seen a guy hit the ball that high and drive it as far he does.
“When you hear the ball off his foot and see it in flight, it’s impressive.”
Graham took in such sound and sight when Nordin and his longtime kicking coach Brandon Kornblue made the 4 1/2-hour drive to Gainesville from Naples, Fla., where they trained at the “Kornblue Kicking” complex. First glance made a lasting impression on Graham.
“One thing I’ll say, before you even see him kick,” Graham recalls, “[Nordin] looks like an athlete.”
And he is.
As young as age 13, according to the Detroit Free Press, Nordin was fielding college scholarship offers in lacrosse — a fact likely not lost on Belichick, whose love of the sport is as well established as his appreciation of kickers who can’t be pigeonholed only as football “specialists.”
Namely, Vinatieri. Remember him running down Herschel Walker at Dallas in 1996? And Stephen Gostkowski. How about him, an ex-college baseball player, sliding into the fray to help create an onside kick recovery against Cleveland in 2013?
Tough and athletic, they lifted in the weight room and ran gassers alongside teammates. Football kickers. Football players.
“That’s Quinn’s mentality,” Kornblue says. “He’s not afraid of mixing it up and [making] contact. His senior year of high school he broke his collarbone from going in and not trying to get the ball, but trying to be a wedge-buster on an onside kick.”
Kornblue says that attitude reflects off-field aspects of Nordin’s approach.
“He’s willing to do whatever it takes to be the best and to give himself the best opportunity to perform at the highest level. If it’s in his control in terms of the nutrition, the training, all those kind of things, recovery, there’s nobody who works harder than Quinn does.”
Including, as Kornblue discovered several years into their relationship, the schedule Nordin keeps to go a few extra miles before he kicks.
They’ve been working together since Nordin was a middle schooler in Rockford, Mich. One a former Wolverine, the other a future Wolverine.
In Kornblue’s case, he walked on at Michigan and waited four years, mostly behind several NFL prospects, including Jay Feely, to finally take a single shot at glory at the end of the afternoon of Nov. 6, 1999.
Leading Northwestern, 34-3, with 33 seconds to go, coach Lloyd Carr dispatched Kornblue for a 26-yard field goal attempt. Attendance in Ann Arbor’s ‘Big House’ was 110,794. His holder was classmate Tom Brady. The kick was good.
A half dozen years of teaching math and playing arena football later, Kornblue opened his school for football specialists in 2007. The following summer, he started running Michigan’s kicking camp.
Nordin became a regular student. Eventually, midway through his high school career, he was invited to stay with Kornblue and his family for a few days of training in South Florida.
On night one, Quinn went to bed before the Kornblues’ 3-year old, so he could wake up with time to run on his own before an early-morning kicking session.
“‘Okay, what’s this guy trying to prove?’” Kornblue said, recently recalling his initial skepticism during a Zoom call. “‘He’s going to go out and be tired from this run, he’s going to come back and not kick well.’ Well, it was either that day or the next day, [Quinn] hits a 65-yard field goal off the ground. He was only a sophomore in high school.”
Video of the kick circulated on the web. College recruiters noticed. Months later, Nordin announced he would attend Penn State. He did it with another video. It also got widely noticed.
Produced by a high school buddy and incorporating a family friend’s private jet, the visuals for Nordin’s verbal commitment increased attention — and scrutiny — paid to one of the nation’s top scholastic kickers. Six months later, he was back in the recruiting spotlight.
Nordin grew uncertain about his choice and reopened the door for recruiters. On the first day of home visitations in 2016, Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh showed up and wound up spending the night at Nordin’s house. The next day, Harbaugh drove Quinn to Ann Arbor for his official on-campus visit.
After subsequent tours of other campuses, Nordin stayed in state. The day he signed his letter of intent, wearing a classic Polo Oxford and flanked by family, a gray-and-white “Kornblue Kicking” t-shirt hung on the wall behind them.
Kornblue remained close.
He saw Nordin enter UM at 17 and redshirt behind an older scholarship kicker; blast his way into the box score with a 55-yard field goal vs. Florida in his college debut; score as many as 17 points in a single game; and drill a career-long 57-yarder against Alabama in the 2020 Citrus Bowl.
He also saw Nordin fall ill and lose his starter’s role as a sophomore; struggle through a junior season delayed, then shortened by COVID and impacted by an opt-out by long snapper Cameron Cheeseman, a 2021 Washington draft pick; before missing his final three career field goal tries in a win requiring overtime at Rutgers.
Through it all, Kornblue watched how Nordin handled it all.
“It was not by any means a clear, ideal college career for [Quinn]. He had a lot of ups and downs throughout,” says Kornblue, who resumed work with Nordin almost immediately after the 2020 season ended. “I think he’s also matured a lot over the years. You come into college as a 17, 18-year old, you’ve still got some growing up and learning to do.
“I’ve seen it just especially over the four months he [was] down here in Florida. I’ve just seen a difference in him in growth off the field and how he conducts himself.”
Counseling as much as coaching, Kornblue employs practices learned from the work of Dr. Bob Rotella, sports psychologist to stars like LeBron James and Rory McIlroy. In Nordin, Kornblue recognized there was plenty of distance in the driver. But the swing needed control, by the mind more than the leg.
“Yes, there were some technical things that I corrected with Quinn and adjusted, but a lot of it was just getting [him] comfortable again and getting that confidence back,” Kornblue explains. “Having him really just be on his own schedule of however his body was feeling and what was working the best to kind of get him into a groove again.
“Just those little, tiny things make a big difference when you’re talking about a guy of that level. It’s not big, monumental changes of technique.”
The little things included shorter kicks.
“In the past I think [Quinn] would get in the habit of trying to impress too much or hit the ball too hard just trying to hit his monster kick,” Nordin explains. “Very rarely would we back it up [for] long-range kicks. It was just short range, building that confidence and routine of just hitting that same ball every time.
“By the time he hit his Pro Day, he was hitting a groove that was kind of the Quinn that he and I know he can be.”
Kornblue scripted the late-March Pro Day, where the lone NFL special teams coordinator in attendance was New England’s Cam Achord.
“When you go watch him, you can see the leg speed and the leg power that he generates,” Achord told reporters earlier this month.
“Quinn felt really comfortable with Cam and Joe Houston, the [Patriots special teams] assistant there,” Kornblue says. “They were really showing the most interest from day one and kind of stayed on him in terms of showing that interest. It just was the right fit.”
Still, 14-year vet Nick Folk, who nailed 40-of-45 field goals in 23 games for the Pats in 2019-20, had just re-signed with the team a day earlier. Also under contract, Roberto Aguayo, a second-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2016, was a practice squad pickup in December.
Nevertheless, nearly a week after only one kicker — Florida’s Evan McPherson — was drafted, Nordin agreed to join New England. Asked why on Thursday, he mentioned the “opportunity to learn and get better” under “wonderful coaches.”
Currently, Nordin is the lone undrafted rookie on the Patriots, who’ve had at least one college free agent on their Opening Day roster for 17 straight seasons.
Thus far, at least in media-accessible OTA’s, Nordin has outshined Aguayo. But he’s yet to kick alongside Folk, who after skipping the spring’s voluntary phase should be present on Monday at mandatory minicamp.
With three months until the 2021 season kicks off, Nordin remains a long shot. Nonetheless, by processing the finer points from Kornblue and his new kicking coaches, he’s shown that he can make it from a long way out.
“I think Quinn’s made a lot [of progress],” Belichick said recently, noting Nordin’s improvement under Houston and Achord. “Joe and Cam have spent a lot of time with him going all the way back to rookie minicamp and in terms of working with his technique and his kicking mechanics, and he’s definitely made some changes, I’d say, for the better.
“And so, we’ll see where all that goes. But he’s doing well and as I said, he’s continuing to improve, so we’ll see where that takes us here.”
“It’s going to be exciting to see, because anybody who has ever seen him kick, they walk away kind of google eyed because he’s at a whole other level of talent and potential,” says Kornblue. “And he’s still getting better, and he knows that.”
Graham stresses the need for the young kicker to keep holding himself accountable. And when Belichick does the same, don’t take it the wrong way.
“You can’t take anything personal,” he says. “The last kick ends [and] the next kick begins the moment the ball leaves your foot. You have to do whatever gets you to your process.”
Particularly when the process allows you to strike the ball as mightily as Quinn Nordin.
“If he does it consistently,” Graham says. “He’ll keep turning heads.”
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