North Texas coach Dan McCarney had his players pack into a single meeting room earlier this year to celebrate a win over Ball State, and he asked a couple of unsung heroes to stand up.
McCarney wanted to make sure his players recognized the contributions deep snapper Tony Johnson and kicker Zach Paul made in a key 34-27 victory.
He also wanted to make sure his players know who Paul is.
The sophomore kicker came to UNT as a walk-on last year and was best known for missing a field goal in a loss to Troy before rising to prominence this season after McCarney made a switch in his special teams lineup.
Paul was the other Zach on UNT’s special teams depth chart before replacing struggling starter Zach Olen, who seems to have come down with a case of the yips when it comes to extra points.
Paul has taken the opportunity and run with it, hitting all 10 of his extra points and all but one of his five field goal attempts since taking over on a full-time basis midway through UNT’s season-opening win over Idaho. He will look to extend that run Saturday in the Mean Green’s Conference USA opener at Tulane.
“Standing up in the meeting was awesome, having everyone congratulate me,” Paul said. “A lot of times, being the kicker is not the glory position. People make fun of the kickers and say they don’t do anything in practice, and then you end up being a big part of a win. That’s a great feeling.”
Paul hit four field goals to help UNT rally from an 18-point deficit in its win over Ball State, including hitting a pair of bombs from 48 and 47 yards. He also connected from 22 yards and 19 yards and nailed two extra points.
His 19-yard field goal in the fourth quarter tied the game at 27 before quarterback Derek Thompson scored on a 26-yard run to give UNT the win.
“Those guys are easy to forget and sometimes hard to remember unless they are out there making kicks,” McCarney said. “They are not out there in circle drill, inside drill, team or doing all the physical things that we do, but you sure remember them when they are out there making kicks and forget them when they miss them. He’s doing a really good job. I’m proud of him and am glad he’s here.”
UNT special teams coordinator Tommy Perry has worked with kickers throughout his career and likes what he sees in Paul in terms of his demeanor.
“I’ve had All-Americans and all-league guys who were really fiery and competitive,” Perry said. “Zach is not that at all. He’s very even-keel. Every time I look at him, he’s smiling. I always try to set the table for kickers in case there is a chance they are going to get to kick a game winner, so I smiled at him [when UNT was locked in a close game with Georgia on Sept. 21] and asked, ‘How great would it be if it came down to a game-winning kick?’ He looked at me and said, ‘Yeah, that would be great, coach.’ I hope that it comes down to that eventually, because he deserves it. He’s a good kid.”
Paul took an unlikely path to be in position to attempt that kind of kick for the Mean Green after a solid career at Frisco Wakeland, where he hit all 140 of his extra points.
A few Division II schools offered scholarships to Paul, who held out for a Division I offer that never came.
“I was accurate in high school and only missed two or three field goals, but a lot of coaches said they needed a guy who could kick off, too, and just crush touchbacks all the time,” Paul said.
UNT never offered Paul a scholarship, largely because he doesn’t have the strongest leg, but did give him an opportunity to walk on.
Paul was stuck behind Olen when he arrived but immediately went to work on improving his craft. He credited his development this year to graduate assistant coach Chris Clevenger, who works with UNT’s kickers.
“I always thought that I could play, at least as the field goal guy,” Paul said. “I don’t miss much in practice and was confident I could get the spot and run with it.”
Paul squandered his first opportunity against Troy, when he missed from 27 yards out, but kept working and improving.
Paul said UNT’s coaches told him that he won the job in preseason practice but they changed their minds and went back to Olen. He kept working despite that setback and received his second chance after Olen missed an extra point and had another one blocked against Idaho.
“It was disappointing when they decided to go with Olen, but I talked to coach Clevenger,” Paul said. “He told me to be ready for anything and that he still had confidence in me. That helped. I was ready for my chance.”
Paul’s chance came in the middle of UNT’s win over Idaho when he was called on to kick a pair of extra points. He hit both and hasn’t looked back.
“He worked hard all summer on his craft,” UNT linebacker and team captain Zach Orr said. “When his number was called, he stepped up to the plate. Ever since then, he has been running with it.”
The question now is how far Paul will be able to go with his opportunity. McCarney declined to name a range he feels comfortable when it comes to field goals with Paul.
Olen still takes UNT’s longer field goals and kicks off.
A miss or two from Paul could open the door for UNT’s veteran kicker. Olen will graduate this year, but Paul will have another kicker to compete with next year.
Trevor Moore, a kicker out of Edmond (Okla.) North whom ESPN ranks 27th nationally, has committed to UNT and will arrive in the summer to compete for the job.
“It’s a little frustrating to see another kid offered a scholarship, but I figure I’m going to have a great year this year and hopefully get put on scholarship,” Paul said. “He’s nationally ranked and they see something in him, but I don’t mind competition. Everyone gets better with competition, and I’ve had competition.”
How he’s handled that competition has helped Paul realize his dream of being a kicker at the major-college level.
“My confidence is building,” Paul said. “Every kick, I feel like it’s going in.”
BRETT VITO can be reached at 940-566-6870 or via Twitter at @brettvito.