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Through The Uprights

Northern Arizona's Luis Aguilar (41) and punter DJ Arnson (19) celebrate after Aguilar connected on a 57-yard field goal moments before halftime against Northern Colorado.

Last season Northern Arizona kicker Luis Aguilar was forced into the full-time kicker spot once then-starter Griffin Roehler left the program early in the season.

Aguilar hadn't even place-kicked since his prep football days at Nogales High School and he was originally brought to Flagstaff to be the team's punter, a job he had a bit during the 2017 season.

Without a ton of practice time at the spot, he fared well on extra points, going 24 of 25, but only connected on 4 of 8 field goal tries last year. This season, however, something flipped with Aguilar.

Aguilar has already been named the Big Sky special teams player of the week twice this year, the most recent coming days after he blasted a career-long  -- and FCS-best -- 57-yard field goal against Northern Colorado in the Walkup Skydome.

“It’s been really cool doing kicking again since I haven’t kicked since high school," Aguilar said. "It feels good. It feels natural now. It feels like it fits me perfect, and I’ve just been rolling with it every game, every kick, every week -- just going out and having fun with it.”

Aguilar wasn't fully healthy when he kicked the 57-yarder. He had a nagging groin injury that forced him to play with his kicking leg wrapped, and before the game, Northern Arizona special teams coordinator and running backs coach Aaron Price told Aguilar that his max distance for the day was going to be around 52 yards.

After a check-down pass was dropped on the play before the long attempt, Price decided to send Aguilar out and let him give it a try from deep.

“I was thinking he’s fine, and plus his accuracy, especially in the Dome, is really there," Price said.

Northern Arizona long snapper Justin Hathoot knew, despite Aguilar's nagging injury, that Aguilar was going to hit from 57.

“Oh, yeah, definitely. I mean, where my confidence came from was that I did my job," Hathoot said. "It was a good snap, DJ (Arnson) had a good hold and I just knew he was gonna nail it.”

For the year Aguilar is 11 of 13 on field goals, missing both of his tries in a rainy road loss to Illinois State from 52 and 51 yards. He's been perfect on extra points, drilling all 27 tries, and has kept teams from getting kickoff return chances with 31 touchbacks out of 42 kickoff attempts.

Aguilar's 31 touchbacks ranks second in the FCS and his 11 made field goals are tied for fourth.

Aguilar also gives Northern Arizona an option that Roehler never really did: a high chance to score from 50-plus yards out. Roehler's career long was 46, a mark that Aguilar broke in his first game of 2019. 

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The trick with Aguilar, Price said, is his consistency. No matter the distance, Aguilar never really changes his mechanics or how he kicks the ball.

“He hits his long field goals like he hits his short field goals," Price said. "So the accuracy part isn’t the issue. Usually with strong-legged kickers, when they get deep they lose that accuracy. He continues to hit it straight.”

Price compared the consistency to how NFL kickers do it. He said you rarely see them kick a different ball despite changes in distance or spots.

OVERALL IMPROVEMENT

Aguilar's breakout season is only a part of an improved special teams unit for Northern Arizona (3-3, 1-1 Big Sky). While punter DJ Arnson had a breakout season last year, this season has been just as good, if not better, all around.

“We’ve definitely been doing better in our punt game with DJ back there hitting bombs, that definitely helps," Hathoot said. "And (Aguilar) obviously is killing it in the field goal game."

So far Northern Arizona hasn't allowed a punt or a kickoff return touchdown, which is going to be tested Saturday against No. 4 Weber State (4-2, 2-0 Big Sky).

The Wildcats have one of the most dynamic returners in the FCS in Rashid Shaheed. The two-time All-American kick returner has brought back four kickoffs for touchdowns in his career.

Although he has been held without a kickoff or punt return touchdown this season, due to a once of each return being called back, he still averages 14.5 yards on punt returns and 16 on kick returns for the year.

Last season against the Lumberjacks in the Skydome, Shaheed nearly took a kickoff to the house, only to settle for 80 yards.

“He’s got tremendous speed, he’s got tremendous vision, he’s got a knack for it," Price said. "He took it 85 yards last week, he went right down the middle. It’s a weapon and we got to corral and contain him.”

Saturday's kickoff is set for 1 p.m. in Ogden, Utah.

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Lance Hartzler can be reached at 556-2251 or at lhartzler@azdailysun.com. Follow him on Twitter @lance_hartz.

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