The story of an NFL hopeful going undrafted but making enough of an impression to earn an invitation to training camp — where he battles to make the team — has been told countless times, by both journalists and filmmakers.
In fact, it is so well-traveled that it might just be one of the greatest clichés in all of sports.
The protagonist of this tale, however, usually isn’t a punter with a bachelor’s degree in psychology from UC Davis, and that’s what makes the story of Colton Schmidt unique.
Schmidt, who graduated from UCD this past June after a brilliant punting career for the Aggies, recently agreed to a three-year deal with the reigning National Football Conference champion San Francisco 49ers and now will attempt to prove his mettle in training camp.
Signing the contract “was pretty surreal,” Schmidt told The Enterprise on Wednesday. “But it was something I’ve been working hard for, so it was surreal and a bit of a relief (at the same time).”
For Schmidt, who was born in Bakersfield, it was the culmination of a journey begun around the start of high school, when he decided to make the switch from soccer to football. Despite his late introduction to the sport — he wasn’t a fan of the 49ers or any other NFL team growing up — Schmidt quickly developed into a top-flight punter and place kicker for Liberty High School in Bakersfield.
After racking up numerous accolades at the prep level, Schmidt took his punting talents to UCD, where he started all four years.
As a sophomore and junior, he earned All-Great West Conference second-team honors, and as a senior, he took it one step further, drawing first-team honors. He also averaged 44.5 yards per punt, which was good for sixth-best in the Football Championship Subdivision.
Even with his success, however, Schmidt still had to scramble to find a spot in training camp once his time in Davis came to a close.
Just days after graduation, Schmidt attended the 49ers’ last mini-camp of the year, where he gave a strong enough performance to convince the team to offer him his contract. NFL rules stipulate that players cannot participate in mini-camps while they are still enrolled in college so it was Schmidt’s only opportunity to showcase his abilities before the 2013-14 season.
Now he finds himself amid the hustle and bustle of 49ers’ training camp in Santa Clara. Fortunately, he’ll be working with a pair of NFL veterans who know a thing or two about being successful at the professional level in punter Andy Lee and kicker Phil Dawson.
Lee, who is entering his 10th season, has been a member of three Pro Bowl and four all-pro teams in addition to holding the NFL record for net punting average in a season (44 yards in 2011). Dawson, a veteran of 15 seasons, has been named to a pair of all-pro second teams.
“Hopefully (I can study) all the cues and tips they’ve picked up during their long and successful careers,” Schmidt said.
He also can turn to his old teammates and coaches at UCD for advice and support.
“I didn’t redshirt so a lot of the guys I came in with are still there,” he explained.
Current special teams and linebackers coach Jeff Copp, in particular, has been in Schmidt’s corner throughout the whole process, talking weekly with the punter and helping him perfect his technique.
“He films everything,” Copp said. “When he’s here, we watch (the film) and talk kicking.”
But Schmidt’s greatest asset to fall back on when he inevitably encounters the trials and tribulations of training camp and possibly an NFL career may, in fact, be his education.
When he first started playing football, he heard coaches talk about the need for kickers and punters to have “ice in their veins and be mentally tough.” With that in mind, Schmidt majored in psychology at UCD.
“I kind of got into that to better understand myself,” Schmidt said.
His degree could end up being a wise investment in more than one way. For one, kicking and punting in the NFL tends to be more often than not a mental game. David Akers, the 49ers’ previous kicker, tied the NFL record for longest field goal (63 yards) in the first game of the 2012 season but later on in the year, appeared to lose confidence after several routine misses and ended up in a slump in which he botched even point-blank kicks. His struggles led to his release and the arrival of Dawson.
And punters like Schmidt have it even tougher as their job revolves around their ability to stay focused on putting the ball in the best possible position while a swarm of 300-pound linemen surges at them.
Off the field, his degree provides him an obvious path to take once he is finished playing football, whenever that may be. Schmidt expressed his desire to go to graduate school at some point and remarked on the sheer number of fields a master’s degree in psychology opens up.
But for now, he’s focused on pursing his goal of playing for an NFL team.
Copp was cautiously optimistic when asked about Schmidt’s chances.
“I think he’s got a great opportunity to play in the NFL,” he said. “(But) there are only 32 jobs out there (and) there are no backup kickers or punters.”
Perhaps drawing from his background in psychology, Schmidt seems determined to stay in the moment and focus on the things he can control.
“Right now I’m just trying to work on my technique and reach that next level,” he said. “My main focus is trying to stay here as long as possible.”