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What Makes These Seniors So Special?
Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
Release: 10/21/2006
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Courtesy: Arizona Athletics
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Morgan Ballard

Arizona Athletics Media Relations

 

There are three important parts of a football team: the offense, the defense, and the special teams.  Offense wins games, and defense wins championships. Special teams can do both.

 

When people speak of the Arizona football team, a single unit of players working together comes to mind. But what about those players that practice separately from the team? What about those two players who play vital roles for special teams, yet are never on the field at the same time?

 

Seniors Nick Folk and Syndric Steptoe are two of those guys. 

 

Although their responsibilities on the team are so different, Folk and Steptoe play positions that are essential to winning games.

 

Folk handles the punting and place kicking, which can be accompanied by nerves and enormous pressure. Luckily for Arizona, Folk thrives on that kind of pressure. 

 

“I like it; it makes kicking more fun,” Folk said. “You are either the hero or the goat and you want to be the hero, so you just have to go out there and have fun.”

 

Even though he tries to have fun, Folk understands that the kicking game is very important for Arizona. 

 

“It is about a third of the game if you think about it,” Folk explained. “When you break it down, it comes out to be about 35 plays, which is a lot,” said the Sherman Oaks, Calif., native on the impact of his position. “It helps us win games.”

 

Special teams coordinator Joe Robinson stressed the importance that Folk’s position has on the outcome of the game.

 

“Every time there is a kicking game play, three things can happen,” Robinson noted. “One of them is a direct attempt to score, such as a field goal, which is the most important thing that happens during the game. There is also a change of possession and, finally, a huge change of vertical field position. All of these things are crucial to the outcome of the game.”

 

During practices, Folk and a number of players on special teams practice separately from the rest of the squad. 

 

“This is something that you have to do, because we are so specialized,” Folk said. “During practice, we go to the stadium and work on drills that we can’t do on the practice field. It helps us and it helps the team because we are getting better.”

 

Being both the place kicker and punter for the Wildcats since midway through last season, it is safe to say that Folk has been a major contributor to the team. At the finish of last season, Folk lead the league in punting average and was named honorable mention all-Pac-10. 

 

“I hope that I have helped the special teams a great deal,” the senior said humbly. “We have been pretty consistent so far with field goals, but we aren’t exactly where we want to be. We will get better. We have five games to prove ourselves.”

 

Folk’s desire to improve also helps his teammates.

 

“Nick is the best because he is such a technician,” Robinson said. “He is also a great teacher because not only is he great with his own technique and preparing himself to win, but he is such an asset to the other players on the team.

 

“He is exactly the kind of team player that every coach in the world is looking for,” Robinson added.

 

Folk’s outlook has remained positive throughout his UA career, beginning as true freshman in 2003 who missed all three of his field goal opportunities. The 6-foot-1 senior has since established a kicking game that is more consistent, highlighted by game-changing plays such as the 48-yard kick that won the game against BYU on Sept. 2.

 

“The experience at Arizona has been really fun,” Folk said. “I have had a great time. I have no regrets \about coming here because I have met amazing people and amazing coaches.  I am glad to be a part of the Arizona Wildcats.”

 

His final season as an Arizona football player has come far too quickly for Folk. “It’s scary. I don’t know what is going to happen after this.  I am not ready for the real world yet.”

 

In order for Folk to have a favorable position to kick field goals or extra points, one player must start the offensive game that will help the Wildcats move down the field. That player is Steptoe, a wide receiver, who also returns punts and kick-offs.

 

The biggest difference between playing an offensive role and returning kicks is that Steptoe is basically on his own once he catches the ball on kick-offs and punt returns.

 

“On punt returns, you are mainly just backed up by yourself and everything is on you,” the Bryan, Texas, product said. “You are either going to catch it or you are not. It’s a huge adrenaline rush.”

 

The offensive role that Steptoe plays has had a major impact for the Wildcats. He has accumulated over 100 catches in his career and is on pace to join the leading career receivers at Arizona.  Important for special teams though, the 5-foot-9 senior has gathered nearly 2,000 yards on punt and kick-off returns.

 

“It’s an experience to have eleven players trying to tackle me when I return a kick,” Steptoe said. “But it is something that I enjoy and that I love to do.  It’s a feeling that you can’t explain, being backed up by yourself and having everyone looking at you.”

 

The rush that Steptoe feels when returning those kicks may be indescribable, but it likely stems from the importance that having a successful punt return has on an offensive drive. 

 

“It gives your team better field position,” the senior captain said. “By not catching the ball or letting it bounce, it could change the game by 15 or 20 yards.”

 

Also playing in his final season as a Wildcat, Steptoe is exuding confidence as a senior leader on the team. 

 

“Being a leader has been great, it really is something that you live for,” Steptoe said.  “Whenever you are young, you want to grow up to be that person that someone else will follow. You want to be able to lead the team.”

 

Not only has Steptoe made an immense impact on the team throughout the four trying years he has played, but he also grown to value the opportunity he has been given.

 

“The experience has certainly been different, coming in as a true freshman,” noted Steptoe. “[Dealing with losing games] is not something you expect, but through it all it has made me a stronger person.”

 

Steptoe has come to understand that winning is not something that can be taken for granted and that some lessons are better learned the hard way.

 

“Losing has taught me to appreciate that when you do win, it is something valuable and it is precious.”

 

The win over UCLA on November 5, 2005, is one of those wins that Steptoe will value for the rest of his life. 

 

“It was a big win for us in the program,” the senior said.  “I did also have a punt return for a touchdown, so it was definitely fun.”

 

Fun seems to be a recurring theme found within special teams. 

 

Another theme surrounding this group of players is that they are relatively unknown to many fans. That is of course, until a game-winning field goal or a fumbled punt return takes place. 

 

“I don’t care about notice; I just care about doing the best job,” Robinson said. “Going unnoticed is immaterial to me as long as we are doing a good job. We do try to motivate them in some different ways because most of the players didn’t really come here to play on special teams, other than the kickers.”

 

Ultimately, winning games and championships is just as much directed by special teams as it is by the offense and defense.  “If we are controlling field position and we are scoring when we get the opportunity, then it is usually hard to lose a game when your special teams are in control,” said Robinson.

 

The completely unrelated tasks of kicking field goals and punts and returning those kicks have somehow managed to become intertwined.  A successful punt return by Steptoe can give Folk the field position that he needs to put more points on the scoreboard.  Although they are never on the field at the same time, Folk and Steptoe bring confidence and leadership to the Wildcat team.

 

That is exactly what makes these two seniors so special.

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