Andy Wilder didn't start the season as Northern Arizona's No. 1 kicker.
But he's proven he has what it takes to carry the weight of being the leader of the Lumberjacks' special teams.
Dubbed the "Wildman" by coaches and teammates, the junior kicker has claimed his starting spot by performing under pressure and has been an integral part of the Lumberjacks' success through an 8-1 opening to the season.
Being a kicker isn't an easy job. Football is a game of momentum and motion, and while 99 percent of the action is happening Wilder -- like all kickers -- sits idly and watches from the sidelines.
Sure, he can practice kicks into the net and he's involved in all the sideline activities, but that's a far cry from being in the middle of what's happening on the field.
Wilder said that's not something that bothers him. He's happy to live in the football world of preparation and said he's excited every time he gets to step on the field.
"It's exciting to come into games and show the team that I can play my position," Wilder said. "I like to show everyone else that I can contribute just as much as a receiver or a running back or the defensive line."
NAU's kicker also doesn't take anything for granted.
He had to earn his way to a starting job after losing the position to freshman Ryan Hawking in fall camp. The Scottsdale Notre Dame Prep graduate won the spot after making the biggest field goal in recent Lumberjack history.
The Jacks had lost the season-opener to Arizona State, but were tied with UNLV 14-14 with 12 seconds to play. Wilder had missed a kick earlier in the game, but was called upon to kick NAU's last chance at a historical win. Wilder lined up and drilled the 33-yard kick to give the Jacks their first win over an FBS team since 1987.
Wilder said the game-winning kicks -- he had another for 18 yards to beat Northern Colorado two weeks ago -- are just ways of showing that NAU has come together as a team and that the Jacks are just getting stronger.
"It helped us in the UNLV game as well as other games, and the success we're having on special teams is contributing to everything else that's going on on the field," Wilder said.
Head coach Jerome Souers knows that Wilder and the entire special teams unit is a key part of the Lumberjacks success. He's said over and over that field position, game-winning kicks and the transitional part of the football team has stepped up to help NAU in more ways than he can count.
"The special team contribution has been a big part of our success," Souers said. "We've been able to win the field position battle in many of our games, our return game has become a weapon and Andy Wilder has made some big kicks for us."
FIRING IN ALL PHASES
Souers has also talked about how important it is for the Lumberjacks to be proficient in all three phases of the game: Offense, defense and special teams all have to play well for the Lumberjacks to win.
It hasn't been the case in every game. In the Northern Colorado game, for instance, the NAU offense struggled and didn't put a single point on the board. The defense carried the team throughout the majority of the game and Wilder's game-winning kick sealed a win. But it wasn't pretty.
Souers' point is that if the Jacks aren't playing their best in all three phases of the game NAU won't beat the teams it may face down the road.
For Wilder, he and his crew -- long snapper Hayden Renning and holder Andy Bachelier -- are just as important as the offense and defense as part of the team.
"Special teams is a key part of the game to go along with offense and defense, and we just try to do our part," Wilder said. "We try to get punts way deep in the other side of the field to help the defense with good field position and for field goals we put points on the board."
Souers said all three parts of the team working together at their best is what gives NAU its best chance at a win on any given Saturday against any given opponent.
"We have to be a team that gets better every week and a team that plays well in all three phases of the game," Souers said. "There are times when one part of our team carries the others, and each one has stepped up at times, but we're at our best when the offense, defense and special teams are all playing well."
BY THE NUMBERS
And they've really done a good job of, well, doing their job. Wilder leads the Lumberjacks in scoring with 61 total points on 10 of 13 field goals and a perfect 31-for-31 on extra points. In comparison, junior running back Zach Bauman has the team's second-best scoring total with nine touchdowns but trails Wilder by seven points.
Wilder has punted 50 times this season for 2,260 yards. He averages 45.2 yards per kick with a long of 66 yards. He's put 16 of his kicks inside the 20-yard line and has had just one blocked.
Wilder has made 76.9 percent of his field goals with a season-long of 38 yards. Two of Wilder's misses were both over 40 yards, and the kicker has had two attempts blocked.
Wilder shares kickoff duties with Ryan Hawkins. The pair are almost identical with a 64 and 64.9 average respectively. Out of 18 kicks Wilder has had 12 touchbacks.
Wilder has also had key kicks in wins over Montana, Portland State, Northern Colorado and Idaho State.
NO LONESOME KICKER HERE
Being the team's kicker is great when the team is winning and when the kicks are going in. That's how it is for Wilder and the Lumberjacks here.
But anyone who watches football remembers all too well the sight of a kicker sitting alone on the sidelines after a missed kick. The walk of shame off the field after blowing a game.
Wilder hasn't had these moments, and he said it's because he's part of a team that believes in itself and the players believe in one another.
"I trust (my long snapper and holder) with my life," he said. "They set everything up for me to let me succeed and I show them that I appreciate them as much as the team shows me they appreciate me putting kicks through the uprights.
"They know they're a huge role as a part of the team as well and I'm thankful I have these guys."
Wilder and NAU will host Southern Utah at 2:05 p.m. Saturday in the first of two home games to close out the regular season.
Bill Harris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 556-2251.