How the art of onside kicking may have helped Patriots find another Julian Edelman

Rob Bradford
May 18, 2020 - 10:07 pm
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Listen to Kevin Kelley talk about onside kicking and you come to understand why he doesn't entrust the act to just anybody.

That's why the Pulaski Academy head football coach relied on Will Hastings. And it was because of that marriage Hastings now finds himself getting the opportunity to make the Patriots as a receiver.

Put it this way: If it wasn't for Hastings' ability to master the art of onside-kicking for Kelley, he doesn't play football at Auburn University, and if that doesn't happen there is no rookie free agent contract with the Pats.

"No question. He wouldn’t been on the team otherwise," Kelley told WEEI.com when asked if Hastings ability to kick allowed for his Division 1 door to open.

It might seem complicated, but it's not. Unique? Yes. Complicated? Not when you hear Kelley talk about it.

The first thing to understand is that Pulaski isn't your ordinary high school football program. They win ... a lot. Eight state championships to be exact. But it's how they do it which stands out. Kelley almost never has his team punts and basically every kickoff is of the onside variety.

"It sounds insulting but it’s not, but all the guys who are doing onside kicking in college and the pros they’re doing it all wrong if you want a chance," the coach said. "We all know the success rate of onside kicks in the NFL is low and in college it’s low. This year we were close to 25 percent. You could say they are high school guys, but the guys who are trying to get the ball in the NFL are NFL guys. They’re all kicking it wrong. They’re all doing the bounce, bounce, hop thing.

"There are several types of kick. You kick it different places on the ball and you can make it spin and bounce and do funny things without bouncing up in the air as much. There is one good kick in the air but most of them you want them on the ground with the NFL doesn’t do. Will was good at soccer and kicking field goals so all I had to tell him was where I wanted him to strike the ball on the ball.

"I would say kick the ball halfway up the ball which is the central hemisphere vertically and kick it on the right lace and this is going to be this kick. And I can say kick it in the center just above the laces and top-spin it and it will be this kick. Or we can stand it up on the tee and say kick it on the top stripe or the bottom stripe. Different things make the ball do different things. Because he was able to control his kicking and strike the ball where I wanted him to, he became a really good onside kicker."

It was a gift born from Hastings' love of soccer, which -- after some coaxing from Kelley and his son Zack -- took a backseat to football. As a ninth-grader, he was simply a kicker for the Arkansas school but then got his chance to try his hand at receiver. By the time his senior season rolled around the 5-foot-9, 160-pound Hastings was perhaps the best in the state at two things: catching footballs and onside kicks.

How good of a receiver was he? During that 12th-grade year, Hastings became only the second player in Arkansas high school history to go over 2,000 yards. The success gave him the itch to play at the highest level. There was a problem, however. "Nobody in college wanted a 5-9, 160-pound receiver," Kelley said.

That didn't stop Hastings.

Despite his high school resume, the Auburn coaching staff wouldn't let Hastings walk-on as a slot receiver. They were, however, intrigued by his kicking acumen.

"He wanted to go try," Kelley said. "He was a good kicker. He wanted to be a receiver for him but they wouldn’t let him. Literally wouldn’t let him walk-on as a receiver. So he went as a kicker. His receiver coach changed after a year and the other guy let him try out for receiver and the rest of it was history."

After Hastings' freshman year, in which he attempted two unsuccessful onside kicks -- ("They never really gave him a chance to do his thing," said Kelley -- the change in the Auburn coaching staff was all he needed. 

After making 11 catches in his sophomore season, he found a groove with current Patriots quarterback Jarrett Stidham as a junior to the tune of 26 catches for 525 yards. Then after he rebounded from a torn ACL to finish off his collegiate campaign with 19 more catches in 2019, the path to the Pats had been set.

"That was my No. 1 place I wanted them to go," said Kelley, who has developed a relationship with Patriots head coach Bill Belichick over the years. "I think the Patriots give guys a chance more based on football availability than most teams do. All you have to do is look at (Julian) Edelman, (Wes) Welker and guys like that and you see that’s the case. They give the chance not based on the measurable. I knew he would go up and get a chance to make the team based on what he would do on the field more than anywhere else probably."

And don't forget about that kicking.

"He’s there to play receiver, but I think what Bill does well — and everybody knows this — is that he takes players and uses them and then if he can find something else they do well or a way they can help the team I think he thinks outside the box on more than maybe anybody else in that league," Kelley noted. "To say that’s why he’s there I think that is not correct. To say if he makes the team as a receiver would Bill use him there? Possibly."