From walk-on to scholarship player to the cover of a UCLA game program.
It’s been a storybook rise for redshirt senior punter Stefan Flintoft, who just might be the best player on the team, thankless position or not.
Flintoft leads the Pac-12 Conference and ranks fourth nationally with an average of 46.8 yards per punt, though it hasn’t exactly afforded him celebrity status on campus.
“I’m not Dorian or Wilton, you know,” Flintoft said, referring to quarterbacks Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Wilton Speight.
Flinoft gets plenty of recognition from teammates and coaches for helping the Bruins win the battle of field position. He has a conference-leading 17 punts of 50-plus yards this season and is trying to join Jeff Locke (2010), Aaron Perez (2008) and Kirk Maggio (1989) as the only UCLA punters to own season averages of more than 45 yards.
“Flint’s been really, really good,” Bruins coach Chip Kelly said. “Not only has he been good from a statistical standpoint, he’s been good with his directional kicks and his plus-50 kicks, so we can’t be more happy with the job he’s done so far.”
Flintoft might be best remembered for the punt that went the wrong way. He kicked the ball to the right side of the field last season against USC while his teammates ran to the left, allowing Michael Pittman Jr. to race up the sideline for a touchdown.
Flintoft said the Trojans picked up on his tendency to kick to the right whenever the Bruins were lined up on the right hash mark, leading to more cross-directional kicks this season.
They seem to be working. Flintoft has boomed nearly every kick since the season opener against Cincinnati, when he averaged 43.2 yards per punt. He said he was rushing his motion early in the season, putting him out of rhythm.
The only thing that pleases Flintoft more than a long punt is one that pins his opponents deep in their territory.
“There’s nothing like taking out your nine-wedge or your nine-iron and putting it inside the five,” Flintoft said. “That’s always pretty pleasing for sure.”
A bigger thrill might have been grabbing about 10 copies of UCLA’s game program against Arizona last month to give his mother, Ingrid. It was just another fairytale moment.
“Did not see that coming when I first got here, that’s for sure,” Stefan said of being on the cover. “Dream come true.”
Kelly isn’t the only one who will experience a homecoming this weekend when the Bruins travel to Eugene, Ore., to face the Ducks.
Receiver Chase Cota grew up in Medford, Ore., and defensive lineman Osa Odighizuwa hails from Portland. Both spent more than a few Saturdays at Autzen Stadium while Kelly was the coach.
Said Cota: “They always had explosive players, so the crowd was always going nuts and I always had a good time.”
Said Odighizuwa: “The crowd was loud. It was just a good vibe.”
Odhigizuwa had extra incentive to go to Ducks games. His brother, Owa, played defensive end for the Bruins from 2010-14 and was part of the team that faced Oregon at Autzen Stadium for the Pac-12 title in 2011. The Ducks won 49-31.
Among the college stadiums he’s experienced, Cota said Autzen Stadium was “louder than pretty much any of them except for Oklahoma, maybe.”
Watching Oregon’s Jeff Maehl, Cota’s favorite receiver growing up, made him want to play for Kelly; he got the opportunity a bit farther from home once the coach took the UCLA job and recruited him. “It felt like it was good for me to go away down here and grow up on my own,” Cota said.
Cota and Odighizuwa have spent part of their week pleading with teammates for tickets. Cota said he expected “a couple hundred people there” but would probably be able to provide only 15 to 20 tickets. Immediate family comes first for both players.
“I feel like we’ll both have enough tickets to bring the people that we need to be there,” Odighizuwa said.
Kelly said right tackle Justin Murphy could potentially return this season after undergoing an arthroscopic procedure on his knee last week.
Murphy recently tweeted out a photo of himself in a hospital gown while lobbying the NCAA for another season of eligibility, but Kelly said he wasn’t sure whether the graduate transfer from Texas Tech would try to return for 2019.
Murphy, who has undergone three knee surgeries, has not played since suffering his latest injury against Colorado on Sept. 28.