Of all the high school kickers and punters Filip Filipovic has trained, mentored and critiqued over his many years of coaching, perhaps none is more ready to fully embrace a starting role at the college level than Hunter Niswander.
Filipovic, a long-time kicking/punting specialist whose list of clients includes New England Patriots punter Zoltan Mesko, Detroit Lions punter Ryan Donahue, numerous elite kickers and punters from major conference programs and countless coveted recruits at the high school level, believes Niswander is ready to start college games, as a place kicker, punter or field goal kicker, right now.
“It’s like he never has a bad day,” Filipovic said. “Mechanically speaking, he’s very solid, very efficient. His technique is almost perfect. I don’t see why he couldn’t be a starter right now.”
Niswander always knew he wanted to play in college, always trusted his focused, driven, workmanlike approach towards his craft. But up until Northwestern held its Chicago Kicking Showcase, the Peninsula, Ohio, native wasn’t quite certain where he’d end up next year.
For three hours last Thursday morning, Niswander lived up to the hype. His peerless display of booming punts and clean, accurate kicks earned Niswander an invitation to Fitzgerald’s office. The young, irrepressible coach proceeded to offer Niswander a full scholarship. The offer was Niswander’s first, and it was one he couldn’t turn down.
“I feel honored to be a Wildcat,” he said. “I’m very excited to get on campus and get started.”
The senior-to-be drew interest from some of the nation’s top programs, including Alabama, Ohio State, Auburn, Wisconsin, UCLA, Michigan State and Kansas State. It’s a list that most recruits could only dream of having, a diverse, distinguished mix of highly-successful programs, led by highly-respectable coaches and overflowing with future NFL draft picks.
With NU, Niswander always had a different sort of connection. Having Filipovic as a personal coach, trainer and advice-giver since his freshman in high school year gave Niswander an inside track at catching the eye of NU coaches and talent evaluators. It was Filipovic, a personal friend of defensive coordinator Mike Hankwitz and a reputable adviser in recruiting searches, that recommended his pupil to Fitzgerald after learning of his interest in adding a kicker/punter to the 2013 recruiting class.
Fitzgerald and staff began contacting Niswander almost immediately, sending multiple letters and demonstrating a truly genuine interest unrivaled by any of the programs on his list. Niswander was intrigued with NU for its academic prestige and its budding reputation as a Big Ten contender. On an unofficial visit this spring, Niswander toured campus and was impressed with what he saw.
“It was a great campus,” he said. “I got a great feel walking around there, it seemed like the right place.”
The next development in Niswander’s recruitment warrants a quick glance at the NCAA handbook to assure its legality. Fitzgerald, in what amounted to a direct, earnest display of tenderness and honest good will, hand-wrote a Mother’s Day card to Niswander’s mom, a kind, heart felt act that, in Niswander’s words, “won her over”.
While Fitzgerald’s Mother’s day gambit worked to perfection, it was the candid, unmistakably sincere approach in selling NU, as a school, football team and character building experience, that sealed Niswander’s commitment. It wasn’t choosing a football team as much as it was embarking on a life-altering, four-year experience at an institution that embodies the concept student-athlete as well as any.
The maturation and development of men, not football players, is Fitzgerald’s core precept in recruiting ventures, his highly-effective appeal to moral improvement and growth that’s improved his national prestige among elite prospects. It worked for Niswander, too, ringing true in a way that no other school, no matter its championship pedigree or five star-flocked roster, could hope to change his mind. Niswander was a Wildcat.
“The way he talked to me, the way he outlined his program, I knew I was making the right decision,” Niswander said, referring to Fitzgerald. “I was surprised by how much a head coach and his staff would treat a recruit. It was really impressive.”
The class of 2013’s ninth commitment, Niswander is a punter, place kicker and kickoff specialist. His longest field goal in a game was 53 yards, while his longest punt netted 80 yards. At 6-5, 210-lbs, Niswander projects as a punter at the next level, though he believes he can play all three positions. Fitzgerald and Hankwitz told Niswander that he would have the opportunity to compete for all three positions once he arrives on campus.
“I think I’m pretty equal in all three,” Niswander said. “I’ve done all of them in high school and I’m comfortable doing them in college.”
When Filipovic speaks of Niswander, there’s a noticeable dash of excitement in his words, as if he already knows of the great, transcendent feats his client will soon accomplish with the Wildcats. Niswander, to his credit, already has an illustrious track record, including being named the No. 1 punting prospect in the country in 2011, according to Kicking. Com, and First-team all conference honors his sophomore and junior seasons.
The scary, discouraging part for NU’s future opponents is that Niswander, already an abundantly-talented, precocious player, is just scratching the surface of his talent. With his flawness mechanics and tireless work ethic, Niswander is an elite prospect, perhaps one of the nation’s best at his age group. But Filipovic believes his apprentice can increase his distance and improve his accuracy, on both kicks and punts, as he takes on a more efficient, position-specific weight-training program.
“At this point, he’s just doing it by being smooth and good with his mechanics,” Filipovic said. “Once he develops some power, fills out his frame. He’s going to gain distance and control.”
In high school, Niswander, armed with a linebacker’s body, did all of his damage on special teams. Yet on the rare occasion that coverage team failed to snuff out a return, Woodridge HS had its kicker as a last line of defense—a punter/kicker eager to bring down ball carriers.
It’s no mystery why Fitzgerald made such a strong case to land Niswander, a kicker/punter with a linebacker’s mentality. One year, one more season of state, regional and national dominance, stands between Niswander and his college destination.
“I feel honored to be in this position,” he said. “I’m excited. I know I picked the right place.”