Dennis Stallard could tell quickly Jonathan Hernandez had a future as a punter.
Just from watching the Manatee High School soccer team work out and seeing Hernandez, a goalkeeper, boom punts from his own net, Stallard saw the makings of a special talent.
Hernandez didn’t fall into the same traps that plague other ex-soccer players trying to make it as a kicker or punter. The lefty didn’t need a run-up to his kick, and he didn’t cross his left leg across his body as he made contact with the ball. Instead, he extended his foot up toward his head and pointed his toe to the sky.
“Sometimes you can just watch a kid and you can tell they’re going to be good at something, and it jumped off the page,” said Stallard, Manatee’s special teams coach. “I said, ‘That kid could be a punter.’”
Stallard pulled Hernandez aside after the workout. He tried not to press the idea too hard when he asked Hernandez, who was a junior at the time, if he wanted to spend his final fall in Bradenton as a punter with the football team. Hernandez hadn’t seriously thought about it, and he still didn’t need to. He would give it a shot, he decided on the spot, and a year later it was his only sport. He gave up his soccer career as a senior to focus in exclusively on punting.
The move was a gamble and after three years of riding the bench in college it finally paid off. Hernandez transferred from Florida State to South Florida before the season and seized the starting job in Tampa. The No. 25 Bulls didn’t have to punt often this season, but Hernandez was an effective weapon when they did. He averaged 41.2 yards on 59 attempts and briefly earned national recognition as an early season addition to the watch list for the Ray Guy Award, which honors the nation’s best punter.
The next hope is to earn a scholarship for his fourth and final season of eligibility. He’ll have his final in-game audition Thursday at 2 p.m. with the Birmingham Bowl against South Carolina.
It could be a fitting end. The punter had a promising future as a soccer goalie in high school — he was even recruited by USF’s soccer program — and discarded it. Instead of scholarships, he was offered a chance as a preferred walk-on at FSU and Miami. The Seminoles told him they’d redshirt him for a year, and then he’d have a chance to earn a starting spot. He ultimately chose Florida State because it was the cheaper option.
“I thought the best outcome for my future was to work at Florida State,” Hernandez said.
For three years, though, he waited on the bench, stuck behind All-Atlantic Coast Conference punter Cason Beatty until he opted to transfer closer to home for his final two years of eligibility. His parents liked the idea — their drives from Bradenton to watch him play are about four hours shorter — and his path to a starting role seemed a bit more clear. He could finally have long-term justification for his switch.
The short-term rationale was never hard to make. Hernandez admits he was burned out on soccer after spending more than 10 years of his life dedicated to it. Punting was reinvigorating.
“Just because it was just a little bit more new to me and I was excited about it,” Hernandez said. “When football came up, it was just like a spur up and got me excited about sports again.
“It was an easy choice once I actually sat down with my parents and talked about it.”
And his parents could justify the money they sank into his soccer career by looking at it as an investment in his punting.
It’s strange to think back to his high school days and contrast where he is now. There was a rivalry, he said, between the Canes’ football and soccer teams. He wasn’t just ignorant to the idea of playing football — he was disdainful to the sport, which made his gamble stranger. But four years later, it’s paying off.
“Honestly, once I started it I was just like, I don’t know why I didn’t do it sooner because I loved it,” Hernandez said. “Glad I did.”