Some “wannabe quarterback” kids hang a tire from a tree for target practice. Those who grow up with hopes of being a the next Sammy Sosa use frisbees as makeshift bases when they play whiffle ball with their friends.
Preston Gruening had nearly half a football field in his backyard.
Preston’s father Scott — a former punter at Dayton — realized when Preston was young that he had inherited his dad’s strong leg. Scott recalls youth soccer games, when other kids would clear a path as Preston struck the ball.
When Gruening’s interests turned to football, his father turned the family’s backyard into Preston’s personal practice facility. He cut down some pine trees on the property, skinned the bark, painted them white and added a crossbar.
“Somedays we’d even paint a few stripes out there so he’d know where an extra point was,” Scott Gruening said. “I had a big net up so they wouldn’t all go in the neighbor’s yard, but then he outgrew that and kicked them up on the roof.”
Years later, Gruening has plenty of space with which to work. The Gophers redshirt sophomore is responsible for punts and holding for kicker Dan Nystrom.
Preston has been the find of the season for Minnesota. After two games and seven punts, he leads the Big Ten with an average of 50 yards per boot.
Even more impressive, Gruening has made Minnesota the third best punting team in the nation. Maryland leads the country with a net average of 53.83.
Gophers coach Glen Mason is pleased with Gruening and even a little leery to discuss the topic.
“I’m a little superstitious. I don’t even want to talk about him, he’s doing so good,” Mason said. “I think he’s performed great. I couldn’t be happier.”
With a late start, the man teammates call “Presto” has made a magical rise indeed.
While Gruening began developing his leg at an early age — playing soccer and then handling kickoffs and field goals in junior high — the skill of punting was not learned until his junior year of high school.
During his senior campaign at D.C. Everest High School in Schofield, Wis., Gruening averaged 45.2 yards per punt. His dad was still his tutor, coaching the team and handing out advice from a road he walked before.
“My dad has put a lot of work into my athletic career,” Gruening said. “A lot of playing college football is getting your name out there.”
Notre Dame, Michigan, Iowa and Minnesota were among Preston’s suitors. He committed to Minnesota early his senior year.
After redshirting the 1998 season, Gruening experienced all the firsts — the first pre-game jitters, the first step onto a field encircled by thousands of fans, the first television exposure, the first play. He played in all 12 games, handling kickoff duties for the Gophers.
This season, Gruening has been a saving grace for Minnesota.
The departure of senior punter Ryan Rindels last season caused concern at the punting position. Rindels accolades include selection to Sports Illustrated’s all-bowl team following the Gophers Sun Bowl appearance last year.
Who would replace Rindels?
Gruening stepped in, having to concentrate once again on the motion of punting.
“The main thing I needed to work on was catching the ball and getting it off fast. That’s one thing Ryan was really good at,” Preston said. “It’s also important to hit the ball solid. That’s kind of what I aim for, getting the ball to feel good coming off my foot.”
The connection between foot and ball has been deadly this season. Preston’s first punt of the season — it went up and came down 65 yards later to a patient Louisiana-Monroe team — left Gruening and Gophers fans stunned.
“I didn’t expect my first punt to go that far, so I was watching and one of their players, he really wasn’t looking to hit me, but he saw that I wasn’t paying attention, came from the side and put me on the turf,” Preston said. “It’s just a little reminder that after I punt it I’ve got to pay attention.”
While Gruening focuses on the ball, more Minnesota fans seemed fixed on him. While his first punt has been his longest to date, it was no fluke.
“It’s a credit to the team as a whole. I may punt the ball, but the snap has to be good and the blocking has to be good,” Preston said. “We could punt anywhere from 0 to 10 times in a game and if any of those punts is blocked, it could really affect the outcome of the team.”
While Gruening does need good blocking and a quick snap, he did not defend the notion that kickers and punters do little during practice.
There is a good reason for that.
Each time Preston punts, he musters all his effort, placing maxiumum strain on the muscles.
“It’s a matter of the harder I hit it, the more likely I am to get the spiral and for it to turn over, which is my goal when I punt,” Gruening said. “I’m sure a lot of people who don’t punt think it’s a total joke, but there are days that I am in pain.”
Gruening’s practice begins twenty minutes before the rest of the team stretches. His day opens with about 15-20 warm-up punts.
“I don’t like to punt that much before practice because I do have that point where I start to get a little tired, a little lazy and I don’t punt as well then,” Preston said.
Then Gophers running coach Vic Adamle — who is also responsible for Preston — takes the field, signaling the start of specialty period. For about 10 minutes, Gruening punts to return men or works on pooches.
Finally the real practice starts and Preston’s day ends.
“That’s actually pretty much the brunt of my work right there,” Preston said.
Still, Preston sticks around to work on his game here and there and to run post-practice sprints with his supporting crew.
He has nearly three seasons of this daily routine left. Nearly three years to perfect a skill for which he has a lot of potential.
“Kicking a ball is not rocket science,” Scott said. “It just requires basic coordination and then he has always had great leg strength.”
Sarah Mitchell covers football and welcomes comments at [email protected]