They came from far and wide, from Kutztown to Kentucky, from Wisconsin-Stout to Wake Forest, from Buffalo State to Baylor, long snappers, kickers, punters, all trying to nab the precious few spots that will be available at their positions in XFL training camps.
Last Sunday, Nick Novak’s kicking camp was the sponsor, for the second year in a row, of the XFL Specialists Showcase. Seventy-six players took part, from a variety of backgrounds and with varied professional and college experience, to make an impression on XFL decision-makers.
The Specialists Showcase last year put 14 players into the XFL, either in training camp or during the regular season. One of the players in attendance last year, K Lucas Havrisik, was just signed by the Los Angeles Rams off the practice squad of the Cleveland Browns, and will kick Sunday for them against the Dallas Cowboys. Seventeen players from the Showcase last year were on this year’s list of performers as well.
The downside for players this year is that teams were building from scratch last year and were seeking players at every position. This year, most teams have at least one player at all three specialist positions and for some teams, that’s all they’ll take into training camp. So many of these players have to not only prove they’re good, but have to prove they’re better than what teams already have at the spot. Below is a breakdown of what each team’s current special teams roster looks like:
- Arlington: P, LS, K
- DC: P, LS, two K
- Houston: 2 LS, K
- Orlando: 2 P, LS, K
- San Antonio: LS
- Seattle: 2 P, LS, K
- St. Louis: P, LS, K
- Vegas: P, LS, K
Because all three of their specialists made it into the NFL this summer, San Antonio may be the most specialist-needy team. It’s probably a good sign, then, that Director of Player Personnel Will Lewis was in San Diego for the Saturday Showcase, as he probably stuck around for the Specialists Showcase on Sunday. None of the three specialists San Antonio released are currently on NFL teams, so there’s always the chance they could be back for next year. As you can see, there aren’t a lot of openings right now, unless teams are willing to take multiple specialists into camp – and not many did that in 2023.
Then again, special teams were inconsistent across the league last year and teams may indeed be looking for upgrades. The gross punting average for the entire XFL season was 42.5 yards per kick; in the NFL through week seven, that number is 47.3. Net punting yardage is also an important number, but due to the major differences in punting rules between the two leagues, I didn’t think it was fair to compare those stats.
Field goal percentage shows an even wider gap between the XFL and NFL. In the XFL in 2023, field goal percentage league-wide was 74.8%. In the first seven weeks, NFL kickers are hitting on 85.7% of their field goals.
So, which players from the Specialist Showcase could provide the help needed to increase those punting and kicking numbers – and end up helping the XFL put more players into the NFL next season? Here is my ranking of the top players at each position that worked out at the Specialists Showcase (special nod to Mike Mitchell at XFL News Hub, who had the full list of participants in his story here.)
- Robert Soderholm, VMI – The second-ranked long snapper eligible for the 2023 NFL Draft per The Athletic’s Dane Brugler, Soderholm was invited to Seattle Seahawks rooking minicamp in May. He also played in the NFLPA Bowl and Senior Bowl all-star games last winter. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, in his scouting report of Soderholm, notes that he has “above-average accuracy” and “athleticism to make tackles,” while the only drawback is his lack of desired size.
- Colton Menges, Alcorn State – A number of accolades were collected by Menges during his time at Alcorn State, including being voted a Preseason First-Team FCS All-American in 2020. In preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft (where he was ranked the #6 snapper by Brugler), Menges took part in a number of post-season all-star games, including the NFLPA Bowl, the College Gridiron Showcase and the Hula Bowl. Menges is so dedicated to his position that according to the Alcorn State website, his favorite athlete is Indianapolis Colts long snapper Luke Rhodes.
- Brian Khoury, Carnegie Mellon – So, uh, this is awkward: Khoury is listed as a long snapper on the XFL.com roster of the Houston Roughnecks, for whom he snapped last season. As noted above, he’s one of two snappers on Houston’s roster, along with Dalton Godfrey of South Dakota. Houston will have a new special teams coordinator in 2024 with Greg McMahon taking the same job at Tulane for this college season. Does Khoury know something we don’t about a a change at the position this year? Has he already been let go and the XFL.com transaction/roster page hasn’t updated as such? Is he just keeping himself sharp for the upcoming season? Was this an error by the folks who sent out this list? Someone contact the producers of Unsolved Mysteries to get to the bottom of this.
Under the radar: Oscar Shadley, Virginia Tech – I’ll admit, I have no idea of Shadley’s snapping ability. The only reason he appears here is he attended Golden Gate High School in Naples, Florida, which is the school into which the middle schoolers I teach matriculate. According to my records, Shadley did not attend that middle school, but still, I gotta rep The Gate.
- Michael Turk, Oklahoma – Special teams is in Turk’s blood: His uncles are former NFL punter Matt Turk and former NFL long snapper Dan Turk. Michael’s odyssey to the pros was a unique one. He declared for the NFL Draft in 2020 after his junior season at Arizona State. Brugler ranked him the third-best punter in the draft, and he attended the NFL Combine where he set a record for his position with 25 reps on the bench press. After not being drafted nor signing with a team, the NCAA restored two years of Turk’s eligibility in what was hailed as an unprecedented move. Turk transferred to Oklahoma for his 2021 and 2022 seasons and for the ’23 draft, was the #4 punter available per Brugler. After averaging over 47 yards per punt in his career, Turk signed with the Miami Dolphins as an undrafted free agent, but was waived August 5.
- Blake Hayes, Illinois – In 2019, Hayes was the Big Ten Punter of the Year for the Illini. In four of his five seasons, he was voted All-Big Ten third team or higher. Perhaps his most impressive stat is that he registered just five touchbacks total in his final three seasons. An Australian left-footer, Hayes was ranked as Brugler’s sixth-best punter in the 2022 NFL Draft. He was invited to the NFL Combine after taking part in the NFLPA Bowl that year. Selected by the Hamilton Tiger-Cats of the CFL in 2022, Hayes played for them until being released this June.
- Dom Maggio, Wake Forest – Few players on this list have as much NFL experience as Maggio. Signed as a UDFA by the Baltimore Ravens following the 2020 NFL Draft, he also spent time with the Atlanta Falcons in 2021 and 2022, though he has yet to kick in a regular season game. Maggio specialized in both touch and power at Wake, finishing his senior year of 2019 first in the ACC in both punts of 50+ yards as well as punts inside the 20. While he wasn’t in the NFL this summer, Maggio participated in John Carney’s Free Agent Preseason Combine where he won the punting competition portion of the event.
Under the radar: Jake Gerardi, Southern Utah: Someone who was the 14th-best punter in the 2023 NFL Draft according to Brugler and who was invited to try out at rookie minicamp with the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs would hardly seem to qualify as “under the radar.” But unlike some of his contemporaries, Gerardi has been off the NFL map since then. Until, out of the blue, he tried out for the Pittsburgh Steelers this past week, just days after taking part in this Showcase. Gerardi’s senior season of 2022 was far and away his best, raising his gross average five full yards from his previous year, while also significantly improving on his punts inside the 20 (nine to 19) and punts of 50+ yards (11 to 21). He was the Western Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Year in 2022.
- Christopher Dunn, North Carolina State – The Lou Groza Award winner in 2022 given to the nation’s best kicker, Dunn hit on over 84% of his field goals in his college career. Though undrafted, he went to what seemed like a good situation with the Los Angeles Rams, where he was competing with fellow UDFA Tanner Brown for the job. It was a short competition, as Dunn was released in June. He kicked in the Hula Bowl and at the NFL Combine, where he was the only kicker to connect on all of his attempts. The sixth-ranked kicker in the class by Dane Brugler, Dunn’s downside is his lack of kickoff experience and his struggles in big situations (he missed three kicks against Clemson in 2021).
- Andrew Mevis, Iowa State – After three seasons at Fordham, Mevis transferred to Iowa State for the 2021 year. He proceeded to make 20-of-23 field goals, including 10-of-13 from 40 yards or longer, putting him on the board as a semifinalist for the Groza Award. He also punted for the Cyclones. Prior to the NFL Draft, he took part in the Senior Bowl, was ranked the eighth kicker in the draft by Brugler and was the second-ranked kicker by both Lindy’s and Athlon Sports draft guides. Mevis signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an undrafted free agent that year.
- Jonathan Cruz, Ole Miss – It’s a head-scratcher that Cruz didn’t even get an NFL minicamp invite this spring following the 2023 NFL Draft. He was ranked the #8 kicker in the class by Brugler and played in the NFLPA Bowl. Perhaps teams were skittish about his size (5’9″). As a senior, he led the SEC in field goal percentage after transferring from Charlotte for his final season. He holds the school record for field goal percentage at Charlotte.
Under the radar: Henry Nell – Look for Nell’s college statistics and you won’t find them; that’s because he didn’t attend college. Nell played rugby in his home country of South Africa until an injury forced him to change career paths. He came to the United States in 2018 and began attending kicking academies, which gained him attention from arena leagues. He played in the NAL, AFL, and IFL in the ensuing years. In 2021, he was even drafted by the CFL’s Saskatchewan Roughriders.