By Kyle Roberts
It seems a real shame that you don’t often hear about special teams players unless something goes wrong.
Good news: this is not that type of article.
After senior kicker Brady Beason graduated following last season, both Ruston High seniors RJ Brown and Will Fendley entered into competition for starting at kicker and punter this past summer.
And a big part of what makes this pair so special is the way they approached that competition: they take an encouraging, yet challenging approach and are each other’s biggest fan.
“As a kicker, you have to have a short term memory,” Fendley said who is now the primary field goal kicker and punter. “Anytime I’ve missed something in practice, RJ is right there to tell me to pick my head back up, and I do that same for him. You’ll see RJ and me together on the sidelines warming up and we’ll kind of mess around with each other a bit and it gets the team going.”
For Brown, the feeling is certainly mutual.
“Will and I are like best friends,” Brown said, as he handles all kickoffs. “All the guys on special teams; we’re very close. When one succeeds, all succeed.”
That type of team atmosphere is something special teams coordinator Bryan Beck is fostering for the Bearcats.
“The really good thing about those guys is that they really pull for each other,” Beck said. “They definitely bring a lot to the table as far as what we want to do as a special teams unit. We were just trying to find out what both of them could do for us, and we could not quite put our finger on who would be our field goal guy or punter over the spring or summer. But now in the season, we know what we’ve got.”
Kicking coach Colt Dunbar has worked with both young men all summer long and now into the fall.
“They’ve both come a long way,” Dunbar said of the duo. “During the summer, they really started to separate themselves into what they would be doing. Both guys are excited to get out there, and they push each other.”
Bearcat head coach Jerrod Baugh echoed the same sentiment as both coaches; the pair bring their own talent into their respective positions and have been given the freedom to flourish on special teams.
“I think it’s been a growing process for the two of them,” Baugh said. “We knew they were talented in different areas, and also, in some of the same areas. We had to filter that out on where we wanted to land in who would handle punt duty, who would handle extra points and kick offs. Those kids have been very supportive of each other. It hasn’t been one of those things where there’s been vindictive things going on. They’ve been very positive with each other, and we see that in practice and games also.”
Ruston High has certainly benefited in the last two weeks with both Brown and Fendley elevating their respective games and getting comfortable in their roles. Fendley knocked through a 24-yard field goal as time expired to beat Cabot High School out of Arkansas, while the next week Brown converted back-to-back onside kicks to start the third quarter, which led to two straight touchdown drives.
To first set the scene with the Cabot finale, Ruston’s defense had mostly held serve against a talented Panther offense for the night, including a pick-six by junior linebacker Jadon Mayfield to end the first half. After the Bearcat offense came alive to tie the score in the fourth quarter, a solid run attack put the ball in range for Fendley with four seconds left. Off the right hash mark, Fendley drilled the 24-yarder to the euphoria of everyone on the home or student side of the stadium. Fendley this season is perfect in both field goals and extra points.
“Coach tells us every time we go out on the field to shut our brains off,” Fendley said. “We’ve done this a thousand times in practice. It’s nothing new; I just need to go out there and kick the ball. Going out there (against Cabot), that was my approach.”
The next week, and ironically following another linebacker pick-six in the second quarter, this time by sophomore Zheric Hill, the Bearcats trailed by a touchdown after halftime. Brown lined up to kick off, and instead kicked a nearly flawless ten-yarder onside that he recovered himself.
“For RJ on kickoffs, we ask him to kick it deep, we ask him to sky kick to areas of the field that no one is covering, and we believe in him on onside kicks,” Beck said. “He’s handled that really well. In the Lafayette Christian game, we knew we needed a shot in the arm to start the second half. We were watching how (LCA) lined up for the kickoff. RJ hit the ball right off the defender’s facemask and recovered his own kick.”
Brown, too, was elated to fall on that football after his onside kick.
“My brother has always wanted me to recover my own onside kick,” Brown said, followed by a laugh. “He was praying for that to happen for the ball to find my hand. I was super pumped.”
An interesting part of the lead up to that story happened previously during the week: Brown reportedly came home for a couple of days after practice banged up and bruised after working on full speed onside kicks.
“RJ’s got some strawberries all over his legs and arms from when we do that in practice,” Beck added. “He works hard everyday and it shows.”
For Brown and the coaches, one onside was not enough. On the ensuing kickoff, Brown kicked another onside to the other side of the field, which again, was recovered by Bearcat junior Semaj Jones.
“I was a little nervous as anybody would be,” Brown said. “We practice onside kicks everyday, so it was a situation we had prepared for, and Coach Beck gave me a little time to think about my steps, but overall I had to shut down my mind and just play football.”
Both onside kicks led to touchdowns and sparked a third quarter onslaught of Ruston points and propelled the Bearcats to a victory over another top opponent in the state.
“We had joked on the sidelines that if they lined up like that a second time that we would do it again,” Beck said. “Our guys were ready for that, and it was just a matter of executing. RJ put two really good kicks on the ball to give us a chance to recover. It was really a turning point in the ballgame.”
While Brown’s and Fendley’s efforts are what go officially on the stat sheets, there are many other important contributors, namely senior long snapper Dylar Richmond and senior holder Matt Garrett. Both Brown and Fendley raved about how much they appreciate all of the guys on special teams and that, without all of them, it would be a tough ask for success in the kicking game.
“There’s so many guys that are working so hard on special teams,” Brown added, trying to name and show love to as many teammates as he could. “Guys like (senior) Jordan McWain, (junior) Nate Johnson, (senior) Ray Owens, and (senior) Jamious Blackmon. I just want to give credit to those guys, as they’re the ones that go down the field and make those plays. Without the confidence in those guys, it wouldn’t happen. I see them working their tails off in practice. I just want to give credit to the whole special teams unit.”
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