Football: Former Pitt punter gets NFL shot with Atlanta

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Posted: Tuesday, May 20, 2014 9:27 pm | Updated: 2:03 am, Thu Aug 28, 2014.

When he found out that he would be a professional football player, Matt Yoklic and his family were watching TV.

It was Saturday evening on May 10. The NFL draft had ended, and the former Pitt punter, his parents and two brothers were at home in their family room in Gibsonia, Pa., watching something else.

Then his iPhone rang.  The call was from an Atlanta area code.

Yoklic knew what was coming next. He had trained the last four months in case he received this call, or one like it. 

“The guy introduced himself, saying he was just asking if I’d like to come down to Atlanta to play. I was all for it. I was so pumped up. It was awesome,” Yoklic said. “It was good to finally get the call and figure out where I was going to be going or if I was going to be going anywhere.” 

Everyone else, including his mom, Jodie Yoklic, waited.

“We all kind of stopped ... We heard Matt say, ‘Yes sir, I’d be honored. Thank you for the opportunity,’” Jodie said, choking up at the memory.

After a few more minutes, he hung up and then delivered the news.

“I’m going to be an Atlanta Falcon.”

A celebration ensued with high-fives and hugs all around, as well as some tears.

If not for a shoulder injury, that scene might have never happened.

In early January, the 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound graduate student explained when he realized, during the spring of his junior year of high school, that punting would be the way for him to extend his athletic career.

“Baseball was probably my favorite sport,” Yoklic said. “I really wanted to play baseball in college.”

That hope disappeared when he tore his labrum while making a play on a ball at first base in a game. 

“It came down to ‘Do I want to get surgery? Or do I want to try and punt?’” Yoklic said. “So I was kind of forced with a tough decision, but it worked out for the best.”

That fall, while holding an extra point in the first game of the season, a bad snap forced him to improvise and try to get to the end zone. Running to his left, an attempted stiff arm caused his shoulder to pop out. A backup quarterback and wide receiver as well, he stuck to punting the rest of the season with good results, receiving an All-Quad North selection after averaging 39.5 yards per punt (1,578 yards on 40 punts) and downing five inside the 20-yard line. 

After coming to Pitt as a walk-on, Yoklic redshirted his first year and didn’t see any game action until his redshirt sophomore season. He didn’t get on scholarship until his junior season.

“[Not having a scholarship initially] was kind of a bummer. But at the same time, it helped me grow as a person,” he said. “Not everything’s going to work out the way you want it to.”

Yoklic finished his college football career having averaged a career-high 43.0 yards per punt in his last season to rank third in the ACC in yards per punt. He also totaled 70 punts for 3,008 yards and had 19 total punts downed inside the 20 and 19 punts of 50-plus yards.

Unlike many of his specialist peers, Yoklic doesn’t come from a soccer background. He punted for the first time at age seven, the same age he was when he began playing football.

“Obviously, at seven, you’re not going to be changing field position too much,” Yoklic said. “I could kick it the furthest and the highest, so I was doing it all the way back then.”

Unlike his teammates Aaron Donald, Tom Savage and Devin Street, Yoklic knew, barring a miracle, he wouldn’t get taken in the NFL Draft.

Players in his position rarely do, since teams only keep one kicker and punter on the roster. In the last three drafts combined, five punters have been picked. 

Undrafted free agent signings of kickers and punters are much more common for franchises. Of the undrafted free agents signed this past month, five besides Yoklic were punters. 

He knew he wasn’t finished with football after Pitt beat Bowling Green in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl on Dec. 26. There was still a chance that one of the 32 NFL teams, if not more, would want him.

The hope was that Yoklic would attract the interest of a team as an undrafted free agent. 

Every team has a starting punter when it enters the offseason. The teams that bring a person in do so to create some competition or to use as an extra leg to keep from wearing out an older punter.  

To keep in shape, Yoklic lifted three days a week and then kicked two to three days a week at the team’s practice facility in the South Side. He also worked out in front of scouts and team personnel at Pitt’s Pro Day on March 3. 

“It’s just basically a waiting game now. Everything that can be done has been done, so you kind of just have got to wait and see,” Yoklic said a couple weeks after Pro Day. “If it happens, awesome. If not, I’m ready to try something new.” 

He continued working towards his master’s degree in higher education management during this time and interned with the life skills department in the athletic department.

Unless something unexpected happens, Yoklic should be with the team, which gave him a signing bonus, through June 19, the end of minicamps and organized team activities, and then for training camp, which begins in July.

Chris Kluwe, who punted for the Vikings for eight seasons and was signed by the Seahawks as an undrafted free agent in 2005, said, as a specialist, getting a signing bonus matters somewhat since there are no guaranteed contracts in the NFL, even if it’s $3000, like in Kluwe’s case. 

“You do have a chance. You’re being brought in to compete. But at the same time, these are $100 million a year salary cap teams, so if it’s a couple thousand bucks then they will get rid of you if you don’t perform. It’s an investment, but it’s not a major one on their part,” Kluwe said. “It’s a good sign, but you still have to go out and play.”

According to Greg Diulus, his agent, Yoklic has continued to keep his even keel even as the process reached its most important stages.

“He’s the type of kid that understands. There are some players out there you have to massage the truth a little bit when you talk to them about what to expect, or what their chances are to make a particular team, but with him, we shoot him dead straight,” Diulus said. “He knows that there are only 32 human beings on the face of the planet that get paychecks every week as a punter.”

Jodie said his realistic outlook never wavered before the call, which came minutes after the draft. 

Yoklic, for his part, appears to be continuing to take everything as it comes, acknowledging the pressure of his situation, but not dwelling on it.

“You can’t think about stuff like that. You got to worry about what’s ahead of you and be ready just to perform your best at any time,” he said. 

Yoklic had been signed up for summer classes in Oakland, but once he got the news, he communicated with his professors, and they understood.

“That’s kind of been put on the back burner,” Yoklic said of coursework.

He flew down to Georgia by himself on May 11 to sign his contract the next day. He and the other 19 undrafted free agents live in a hotel near the team facility.

“It’s been a crazy ride. I’m glad. I feel like I landed in the right spot,” Yoklic said. “All you can really ask for is an opportunity, and I’m lucky enough to get one.”

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