ATHENS – Georgia football fans, or fans of any SEC school, can imagine the stereotype of a punter, especially at an Ivy League school. Cameron Nizialek didn’t fit that, as his new coach Al Bagnoli discovered upon arriving at Columbia two years ago. There was Nizialek lifting weights with the linemen, running track with the skill position players.
“He behaves as one of the guys,” Bagnoli said. “He’s in the middle of everything.”
His main job was still punting, however, and Nizialek did it well at Columbia, even if he was splitting those duties. Now he’s trying his hand at what would seem a completely different football league, the SEC, and apparently it’s going well too.
The word out of Georgia spring football camp is that Nizialek will give incumbent Marshall Long a real competition for the punting job. Nizialek has been impressive so far, while Long, who had an okay freshman season before breaking his kneecap, is still working his way back.
“I expect it to be a really good battle in fall camp,” Georgia head coach Kirby Smart said. “Cam’s had good averages for the spring, hang and average. That’s good.”
When you look at Nizialek’s stats at Columbia, they’re good (44.9 as a junior last year, 42.9 as a sophomore), but one thing stands out: He shared the punting duties. How can you go from co-punter in FCS to starter in the SEC? Well, it’s not that simple, according to Bagnoli.
The other punter was also good enough to graduate transfer to the SEC: Matthew Panton took his talents to Kentucky this offseason, where he’s also competing to start.
“When I got here, the program was in somewhat of disarray, but the kickers they had recruited, the punters specifically, were outstanding,” Bagnoli said. “Cam has a really big leg. He works at it, he’s a really good athlete, and he’s got plenty of experience here. So no, I’m not shocked at all (he’s competing at Georgia).”
Nizialek and Panton alternated based on what Columbia needed that punt. Nizialek was the one with the big leg, meaning hang time and distance. Panton, an Australian who grew up playing Australian rules football, specialized in reverse spin motion and “coffin corner” and sky kicks.
“Not that Cam couldn’t do that, because he could. But the other kid was exceptional,” Bagnoli said. “So it was a great one-two punch, as good as I’ve ever been around on this level.”
But neither would complete their careers at Columbia. Both Panton and Nizialek had graduated, and the Ivy League has a rule against graduates playing, so they could either stay at Columbia and pursue a second bachelor’s degree, or graduate transfer outside the league. Or outside the FCS.
“Those guys did a really good job of researching where they thought there was reasonable opportunity to compete. I think that’s all they were looking for. How many kickers were in the program, how successful those kickers were, how open were people to potentially giving them the opportunity,” Bagnoli said. “When the smoke cleared, I think Cam thought Georgia would be a really good match for him.”
But what about the adjustment? How would Nizialek, after playing in the Ivy League for three years, handle a 6-foot-5, 240-pound linebacker bearing down on him?
That shouldn’t be an adjustment, per Bagnoli, who said the mechanics and timing of punting or kicking field goals is the same at any level. It’s not like an offensive tackle who has to adjust to blocking much bigger guys.
“Just whether or not he can handle some of the crowds. He’s not used to seeing 70,000 people,” Bagnoli said. “That’d be my biggest question mark.”
Which makes G-Day a perfect first test. After all, Georgia’s second game is at Notre Dame, and if Nizialek happens to win the job, there’s the big test.
But as for the punting Bagnoli, who saw Nizialek hit 45-50 yarders to a specific spot, has little doubt in his former player.
“He certainly has the talent level to succeed on that level,” Bagnoli said. “He’s just not an average punter. He’s pretty legit.”
G-Day is this Saturday. Georgia’s spring game kicks off at 2 p.m. and will be televised on SEC Network.