ATHENS – Last Saturday before the Bulldogs played Samford at Sanford Stadium, Cameron Nizialek pulled out his laptop and queued up the Columbia University game. Nizialek was playing at the Ivy League school in New York City just a year ago and, if not for some forethought and planning, might still be.
But Nizialek fancied himself a pretty good punter, good enough to perhaps earn some money at it after college. So he left Columbia as a graduate transfer, landed at Georgia and, Saturday, will enter his fourth game as the No. 11 Bulldogs’ starting punter as they open SEC play against 17th-ranked Mississippi State in a nationally televised prime-time game on ESPN.
That’s not quite as big of a deal to Nizialek as it might’ve been a few weeks ago. I mean, he’s already played before two packed houses at Sanford Stadium and in a nationally televised game at Notre Dame Stadium already.
Still, it’s a long way from playing against Wagner College in 17,000-seat Robert K. Kraft Stadium. His Lions won, by the way.
“It’s just totally different,” said Nizialek, laughing at the contrast after a Georgia practice this week. “There’s nobody in the stands. The pace of play is a little different. But, I mean, I love those guys. They do a really good job. But right here is where my focus is and I’m excited for the rest of the season.”
Nizialek has a lot about which to be excited, and so does Georgia. He has quickly emerged as one of the best punters in the SEC and a real weapon for the Bulldogs in the all-important battle for field position. Since winning the job in UGA’s preseason camp, Nizialek is fourth in the league in net punting (44.5) and Georgia is the only SEC team whose opponents have negative return yardage (minus-4).
What’s more, the Bulldogs’ opponents have attempted to return only four of Nizialek’s punts. Those have all ended badly – and usually painfully — for the returners.
That’s because Nizialek’s hang times have been in the NFL range. His punts generally take 4.4 seconds or so to return to earth after leaving his foot. He has reached as high as 4.9 seconds on a couple of punts. The optimum in the punting game is to match hang time with distance, such as a 4.4 hang time on a 44-yard punt.
Nizialek is doing that consistently. With speedy gunners like Mecole Hardman and Jayson Stanley covering kicks, that hasn’t left opposing returners many options besides fair catch or immediate contact upon fielding the ball.
“The biggest thing is putting the ball as high as possible, really,” Nizialek said. “Limit returns is what I’ve been trying to do. That’s what I’m going to try to keep doing.”
Georgia could not have asked for a better blessing than Nizialek. In case you haven’t noticed, punting has been a bit of an issue for the Bulldogs the past couple of years.
Last year, after starting punter Marshall Long suffered a knee injury, backup quarterback Brice Ramsey had to take over. Not coincidentally, UGA was 13th in the SEC in net punting at 34.9 yards. So you’re looking at a 10-yard difference a year later.
“He flips the field position, man,” head coach Kirby Smart said of Nizialek. “It’s just obvious. Number one, he gets it off fast; number two, he’s getting distance; number three, he is just changing the field position. He’s had a couple of punts that were bombs, but we measure punts by hang time. We look for hang and distance to match. He’s done that every time but probably twice.”
That’s on 15 punts. Nizialek is averaging 44.3 yards on those, with a long of 57. He has yet to record a touchback, which is a good thing for punters.
Smart would like to tell you that he found Nizialek by scouring the country from the coast-to-coast in an attempt to discover a hidden gem of a prospect to bring back to Athens. He’d like to, but that’s not how this came down.
Nizialek found Georgia.
“With him, it wasn’t like we knew something. He was free,” Smart said with a laugh. “He didn’t cost us anything. He’s a grad school transfer that walked on; great for him! He did an unbelievable job and he won the job. He saw an opportunity and he seized it. To be honest, I never saw him kick in a game at Columbia. He came to a game and said ‘I want to come to Georgia.’ I said, ‘great, come on!’
“There was no loss of value for us. And look what we got out of him!”
Actually, this all has been in Nizialek’s plans for a while. Not UGA necessarily, but you don’t get into Columbia University without some smarts. Once it became evident to Nizialek that he not only was a good punter but exceptionally exceptional, which was right around his sophomore year, he planned to graduate from Columbia early and seek a Power 5 school that could display his football talents on a bigger stage. The Chantilly, Va., native looked at Clemson, Virginia Tech and South Carolina, among a few others.
But, again, a wise and highly educated man, Nizialek did lots of research. And his data indicated that Georgia would be an ideal spot.
“I did a lot of research on how successful the punters were or if they had a senior and stuff like that,” he said. “So I knew where I had a good shot of playing.”
As for the decision to go to Columbia out of high school rather than walking on and trying to earn a scholarship at one of the many major programs within a couple of hours of his home in Virginia, Nizialek said football wasn’t a major priority for him at the time. The son of a pair of Duke graduates, he was fully focused on academic opportunities, and he took care of that by earning an economics degree from Columbia in 3½ years.
With that valuable lambskin in his pocket, Nizialek felt he could afford to intently focus on the pigskin for a while. In the meantime, he’ll earn his master’s degree from UGA at the end of this semester.
“It’s going well so far,” Nizialek said. “Coming in, I just wanted an opportunity to get a chance. That’s all you can ask for as a graduate student. But I had to make a really calculated decision. I’ve got one year and I want to play at the next level, so I had to weigh those things appropriately.
“I’d say I’ve done an all right job but I’d like to do a little better. I think there’s room to improve. I’m excited about how I’ve been doing but I think I’ve been doing better in practice and I want to keep that rolling.”
Georgia needs Nizialek to play especially well this weekend as the Bulldogs collide with Mississippi State in what everybody expects to be an extremely close and competitive Top 20 matchup. It’ll be the fourth consecutive night game for Georgia and promises to be the most electric atmosphere Nizialek has ever experienced.
It’s not something Nizialek is necessarily used to just yet, nor is it something he wants to get used to.
“Just running out of the tunnel and having 93,000 people out there is something you’ve just got to cherish because it’s really incredible,” Nizialek said with grin. “I don’t think I was ever intimidated, but I’m still going to appreciate it every time I go out there because it’s an incredible experience. It’s not something anyone ever gets to do. No one gets to do what I’ve experienced and that’s pretty awesome.”
Pretty awesome for the Bulldogs as well.
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