COLUMBIA — Tyler Hull’s hometown, Mount Airy, N.C., is certainly bigger than a map dot, what with its 10,000 or so residents. But it is known more for its small-town feel — and being Andy Griffith’s birthplace — than for churning out high school football recruits.
Mount Airy High competes in the smallest of North Carolina’s four high school football classifications, so Hull didn’t receive much attention from college coaches, even as he led all high school kickers in the state with 118 points in 2009 and was a two-time all-state selection.
Hull found himself playing for Division III Guilford College in Greensboro as a college freshman in 2010 — “my only option at the time,” he said. Guilford attempted just five field goals, all by Hull, and he made three, including a long of 34 yards. He took over punting in the final game and knocked one 42 yards. But it wasn’t a tremendously rewarding college football experience as Guilford went 0-10.
During that season, he said, “I felt like I was overpowering the rest of the players in the conference, so I thought, ‘Well, I might as well try to achieve something higher and see if it works out.’ And so far it is. It’s working out pretty good.”
Hull was speaking after Monday’s South Carolina practice — one week after he arrived in Columbia, trying to help the Gamecocks with their uncertain punting situation. Though Hull didn’t get to USC until three days after preseason practices began, coach Steve Spurrier already saw enough of him by Saturday’s first scrimmage to tab him the likely starter.
“It appears he may be our punter this year,” Spurrier said.
From 2008-10, USC enjoyed three years of Spencer Lanning’s punting. He averaged 42.1, 41.9 and 44.1 yards. He ranked No. 20 nationally in his final season. Last season, Spurrier approached walk-on senior kicker Joey Scribner-Howard, who never punted before.
“Would you work on your punting a little bit?” Spurrier recalled asking Scribner-Howard. “We don’t have anybody.”
Scribner-Howard punted 52 times last season for a 38.9-yard average, which was No. 79 nationally. Spurrier attempted 31 fourth-down conversions last season, fourth-most in the country, and said part of the reason for such aggressiveness was that USC did not have a player who could boom punts.
Moreover, if the Gamecocks couldn’t find a guy like that for this season, they might just continue to chase fourth-down conversions, Spurrier indicated. The strategy proved effective in 2011, as USC ranked eighth nationally in fourth-down conversion percentage (74.2).
Already, Spurrier has found at least some consistency at punter, as Hull seems to have moved ahead of junior Mike Williamson and sophomore Patrick Fish, who entered the preseason first and second on the depth chart. Though Fish is on scholarship, unlike Williamson and Hull, none have ever punted in a USC game.
When Hull decided he wanted to play at this level, he began attending kicking camps run by former UCLA All-American Chris Sailer, who gave Hull one-on-one instruction and a chance to get noticed by prominent schools. At the camps, Hull made the biggest improvement with the hang time of his punts.
“My distance has always been there, but my hang time, it was more line drives,” he said. “But now I really get the ball up and turn them over, seven or eight times out of 10.”
Hull had to sit out last fall because he was transferring from Division III to Division I, so he took classes at Surry Community College near his hometown. He kept attending kicking camps and competitions. In February, he went to Sailer’s national event in Las Vegas and was named one of the top 12 junior college kickers or punters.
Hull had sent emails to colleges, and in the spring USC got in touch with him about being a preferred walk-on. He will be a redshirt sophomore this season. As he prepares for it, he said he would like to average 40 yards per punt, since he said he averaged 46 in his two most recent national camps.
Hull’s journey to punting for the nation’s ninth-ranked team — from Mount Airy’s biggest leg to Guilford’s kicker to regular community college student — was anything but quick. Yet that’s exactly how his eventful first week at USC felt.
“It’s been a pretty fast process,” he said.