This feature on future NFL punter Paul Ernster appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in August 2004.
By ED ODEVEN
One day in 2000, during the Lumberjacks’ preseason training camp, a freshman kicker named Paul Ernster was practicing under the watchful eye of Northern Arizona head coach Jerome Souers.
Ernster made an immediate impression.
“You boomed the ball,” Ernster recalled Souers saying. “We’re going to start calling you ‘Boomer.’ “
The nickname’s been permanent.
“From that day on, he’s just like, ‘Boomer,'” Ernster said, referring to what Souers calls him. “It’s always stuck.
“No one ever calls me by Paul,” he added, chuckling. “I never hear my name anymore. … It’s always Boomer.”
As a fifth-year senior, Ernster should hear his named called on a frequent basis. He is slated to handle the place-kicking, kickoff and punting duties.
“I’m definitely excited. I haven’t been able to do something like this since high school,” the 2000 graduate of Glendale Ironwood High said. “Obviously, it’s a bigger level of competition, and for me to be given this opportunity, gives me a lot of confidence in myself.
“I’m just excited to be able to do all three. Not many people at this level are able to do all three. I welcome the challenge. It’s going to be tough.”
Freshman Bubba Bradley, a Glendale Cactus High School grad who was the recipient of Phoenix Metro Magazine‘s Golden Toe Award last season, and Rhian Madrid, a former Phoenix College player, are pushing Ernster for playing time at place-kicker and punter, respectively.
To prepare for the full-time duties, Ernster worked out this summer longer and with more intensity than he’d ever done before. He lost 15 pounds in the off-season and did lots of running and exercises to strengthen his abdominal muscles.
And, of course, he kicked.
“There are some days when I kick for an hour straight just to get in shape,” Ernster said, stressing the importance of a strong right leg.
Ernster’s focus and discipline have not gone unnoticed.
“I think it’s difficult to do all three, but he’s in great shape,” Souers said. “He’s trained hard all summer. He’s worked in all aspects of the kicking game. You can see his improvement. But our backup plan is to have a guy in the event that Paul can’t handle all three.”
Ernster welcomes the competition.
“(Bubba) is going to be a great kicker,” Ernster said. “If he beats me out this year, more power to him. It’s a healthy competition. I help him out and we help each other out. We’re friends. We go play golf. We hang out. It’s not like we are at each other’s throats.
“The same (is true) with Rhian. He’s a great punter and kicker. My goal this year is to put it all out there and let Coach Souers make the decision — whoever’s best for the job.”
In recent years, NAU had one of the most gifted kickers in the country: Mark Gould. He was a household name for NAU fans — not to mention Big Sky coaches who developed stomach ulcers while thinking about the edge he gave NAU in field position time after time, thanks to his punts and routine touchbacks on kickoffs. As a junior in 2002, Gould led Division I-AA with a 48.2-yards per punt average. He is one of Ernster’s closest friends.
“He’s a great punter. There’s no doubt in my mind he should be somewhere (in the NFL),” Ernster said of Gould’s future, which is up in the air after he was cut by the New York Giants during the preseason. “He works so hard. I was blessed to be able to work out with him.”
And now, Ernster and NAU’s special teams have plenty of work to do in this season of adjustments. Senior tight end Josh Hamlin is the new long snapper and senior safety Eric Iverson is the new holder, replacing departed seniors Pat Walsh and Nathan Van Peursem at their respective positions.
“This year, they are filling the shoes very nicely,” Ernster said.
Just like a pair of successful synchronized swimmers relying on impeccable timing and graceful movement to win gold medals, NAU’s new three-man place-kicking crew will need to develop similar timing and chemistry this season to be successful.
“They set the bar so high. Nate was so consistent, so accurate. Same with Pat,” Ernster said. “There was never an issue with a snap or a hold. Anything that was wrong last year was my fault.”
That said, Ernster struggled at times last season, finishing the year 18 of 30 on field-goal attempts. He made 4 of 7 in the 20-to-29-yard range, 7 of 13 from 30-39, 6 of 8 from 40-49 and 1 of 2 from beyond 50 yards — a 52-yarder at Sam Houston State.
Greg Lees, NAU’s special teams/linebackers coach, said Ernster’s ability has never been in question.
“I think he recognizes … that it’s a mental aspect of the game and that the most important distance is the six inches between his ears,” Lees said. “He knows that, so I think in that regard he will show improvement.”
The Lumberjacks have tough standards for their place-kickers.
“Our goal, first and foremost, is to be 100 percent on all of our PATs and field goals from the 39-yard line in. That would be every game,” Lees said.
“Some of those are in critical situations, some of those are game-winners, some of those could have different weather conditions, but that part doesn’t change.
“We believe that’s a fair goal. We’ll achieve that in some games, and hopefully the majority of the games.”
As a senior, Ernster returns with a strong desire to have his best season yet. Watching Ernster work out recently, Lees noted that he’s developed a more compact kick, with a more efficient leg swing.
The team hopes this will yield better accuracy.
“He is a guy that returns as a highly touted guy that we are counting on,” Lees said, “and he certainly recognizes that as well.”
They don’t call him “Boomer” for nothing.