Inside The Chart: Small Town, Big Leg

Nov. 2, 2017

Andy Demetra | Inside the Chart

For most of its existence, Alcolu, S.C.’s chief export was lumber. The small burg in west-central South Carolina began as a mill town in the late 19th century for employees of D.W. Alderman, a local timber magnate. Ribbons of railroad tracks still crisscross through the pines there, clacking with commerce from all areas of the state. The town takes its quirky name — it’s pronounced AL-co-lu – from a portmanteau of Alderman (“Al”); his business partner and brother-in-law, Colwell (“Co”); and his oldest daughter, Lula (“Lu”).

With a population of 429 as of the 2010 census, Alcolu isn’t quite a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town. But it’s not far off.

Recently, Alcolu has become known for another prized commodity: field position.

For that it can thank native son Pressley Harvin III, Georgia Tech’s freshman punter who has left coaches, teammates and opposing punt returners in awe over his booming, cannon-legged kicks.

Entering the Yellow Jackets’ game against Virginia on Saturday (5-3, 2-2 ACC), Harvin has climbed to seventh nationally in punting average (46.0 ypp). He’s on pace to break the school record for season average, set in 1997 by Rodney Williams (45.6 ypp). On Monday he was added to the Ray Guy Award Watch List, given annually to the nation’s top college punter.

“I didn’t think I really deserved it yet. This is only my freshman year. I just wanted to make sure that every punt I go out there, I want to help the team as much as I can,” Harvin said.

He has even managed to get his head coach gushing.

“He’s been great. There’s no question he’s been a real bright spot for the football team,” Paul Johnson said on his weekly call-in show. “He’s got a really strong foot. You can just hear it when it comes off. He’s been big for us. He’s flipped the field so many times in these last two or three games punting, he’s a big weapon.”

The winner of the 2007 Ray Guy Award has taken notice, too.

Said former Yellow Jacket Durant Brooks, who was inducted this fall into the Georgia Tech Athletics Hall of Fame: “Everybody is getting so precise. They’re picking one thing to do and getting really good at it, very young. It’s pretty cool. These guys are able to come in as freshman kickers and punters and do well. That just helps your team out tremendously to have that kind of weapon early on. And then to have, what, three more years to perfect his punting?

“I’m going to have to tell Coach Johnson he’s got to pooch punt more so his average won’t get too high,” Brooks joked.

Bad weather can also threaten a punter’s average, but Harvin’s best outings have come in the worst conditions. Both of the Yellow Jackets’ road games, against No. 11 Miami and No. 7 Clemson, were played in driving rainstorms. Harvin has also shifted to a rugby-style punt, where he rolls out laterally before kicking the ball. It gives his punt coverage unit more time to get downfield, but also makes him more vulnerable to slipping.

Against Miami, with several of his kicks coming amid monsoon-like downpours, Harvin averaged 45.3 yards per punt. Four of them landed inside the 20, including a career-long 62-yarder. He followed that up with a 46.9-yard average against Clemson, with five punts topping the 50-yard mark. The performance was even sweeter, Harvin said, because his family all grew up as fans of the South Carolina Gamecocks, Clemson’s bitter rival.

And get this: Harvin doesn’t consider himself a good bad-weather punter.

“I’ve always been terrified, actually,” he said, adding that staff assistant Tim McGrath regularly suggests that the specialists go through “wet ball” drills in practice.

“I’m so focused on making sure I catch the ball, getting clean steps and all — when you put rain into that, it messes you all the way up in your head. It’s just a mental thing.”

His performances may have surprised himself but Georgia Tech’s coaches knew Harvin could make an impact almost immediately. Kohl’s Kicking Camps, the foremost scouting service for high school kickers and punters, rated him the No. 2 punter in the nation. He led the state of South Carolina in punting average as a junior and senior. For years, he was a fixture on the regional kicking camp circuit.

“He was one of those guys in recruiting, you got what you thought you were going to get,” said Johnson.

And yet, little of Harvin’s background seems conventional for a major-college punter. Alcolu itself is an unlikely incubator: by Harvin’s accounting, his hometown has an Exxon station, a post office, and not much else. Most punters begin as soccer players; Harvin stopped playing at age six. He dabbled in punting in middle school, but primarily played center and tight end.

His coach at Sumter High School, Reggie Kennedy, put Harvin on the varsity as a freshman, but he hardly felt like he had arrived.

“[Kennedy] believed in me at a very young age. He took me up and put me on varsity but I didn’t play. So it was kind of like I was the underdog. I felt like I needed a lot more work. That summer after the season, I started working really, really hard,” Harvin said.

At 6’0″ and 240 pounds, Harvin doesn’t have the traditional, rangy frame of a college punter. Then again, not many punters finish second in the shot put at the South Carolina high school track and field championships, competing in the state’s largest classification. Harvin credits shot-putting with helping his development as a punter.

“Core strength. Our coach, Cleveland Pinkney — he played at South Carolina and then he went on to play for the Lions — he was very, very strict on core. We worked on core a lot more than we did throwing. That helps with punting too, because as anyone knows, if you want to be a punter, you have to have core strength and flexibility,” he said.

Georgia Tech assistant Mike Sewak began recruiting Harvin early in his junior year, and he committed to the Yellow Jackets that March. As his profile grew, schools like Alabama and Clemson tried to jump in late. He didn’t waver.

“He said he gave us his word and he’s going to stick by his word,” Johnson said.

That commitment has been a boon for the Yellow Jackets, who continue to benefit from his field-flipping prowess. Los Angeles Rams punter Johnny Hekker may have taken the “Legatron” nickname in the NFL, but given Harvin’s and Calvin Johnson’s shared school, it might not be a bad appropriation.

Pressley Harvin III will try to add to his average against Virginia on Saturday (3 p.m. ET, Georgia Tech IMG Sports Network). When he lines up for his next kick, he’ll once again become what the folks in Alcolu have known for a while: a Third who thrives on fourth.

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