(Photo: Brett Deckert/WCSN)
It’s not often a career comes around that is as historic as Zane Gonzalez’s. The senior kicker has had a litany of accomplishments during his senior season, and capped off his Sun Devil career in a big way, breaking the NCAA record for all-time field goals made.
Being the potential recipient of the Lou Groza Award, which is given to the nation’s best kicker, would encapsulate a prolific four years for him as a Sun Devil.
While a shot at stardom at the next level seems in reach, Gonzalez comes from humble beginnings.
He attended Deer Park High School in suburban Houston, which is where he first fell in love with kicking. According to Gonzalez, the moment when he first saw his potential at the position came during his freshman year of high school, when he made a 43-yard field goal.
“In middle school I would just mess around with it,” Gonzalez said. “In high school I went to camps and started getting better. I saw a future with it, and just kept going with it.”
Like many other kickers, a soccer career at a young age propelled him to a more successful venture on the football field. As he progressed through high school, Gonzalez drifted away from his first love and closer to football.
He said that decision has helped him immensely.
“People say that you’re kicking a ball, but it’s a completely different motion,” Gonzalez said. “Soccer helped me get the leg swing down, the leg strength and the ability to handle pressure too.”
Foreshadowing his success in college, Gonzalez was perfect on both field goals and extra points in his senior year of high school. His recruitment, however, wasn’t as simple as his pedigree may make it seem.
“It was pretty horrible,” he admitted. “I didn’t get any offers. Signing day had passed, and another month had passed. Then Wisconsin came and offered. ASU counter-offered, and I loved it out here when I came to visit, I just didn’t have the money without an offer. Once I got here it was awesome.”
Gonzalez has a deep affection for Tempe and Arizona in general, citing the weather as part of the reason why he chose ASU over Wisconsin, among other schools.
“You can’t beat this school honestly,” he said. “It’s a beautiful school, a beautiful town. It attracts the eye. The better question would be: Why wouldn’t you come here?”
Gonzalez had an intensely firm grasp on the starting kicker spot from he outset. He didn’t let go of it throughout his tenure.
He filled the void that the Sun Devils had at kicker immediately, making 83 percent of his field goals and connecting on all 63 of his extra points during his freshman year. The year ended with him being named to the first-team All-Pac-12.
His sophomore season brought a similar efficiency, as he overcame a suspension during one point of the year to make 22 of 27 field goals that he attempted.
For Gonzalez, his success over time boils down to one thing: the confidence that he gained in himself.
“Coming in as a kicker it was just do your thing and get off,” he said. “Now the team depends on you to get those points and understanding how important those points are and being confident that you can go out there and perform and help your team out.”
His confidence didn’t waver despite a junior season that got off to a rough start. He made only five of his first nine field goal attempts but collected himself well enough to convert on 21 of his final 25 attempts.
As most of the college football world learned, it was his senior season in which Gonzalez’s career reached its apex.
His big day came in ASU’s 24-21 win over UCLA when he passed former Florida State kicker Dustin Hopkins to become the NCAA’s all-time field goals leader. He finished his career having made 96 total, eight more than Hopkins.
Gonzalez’s record breaking kick was the difference in the game against the Bruins. Afterward, his head coach, Todd Graham, lauded everything about Gonzalez.
“I am really proud of Zane and the young man that he is,” Graham said. “Not only on the field but also off the field and in the classroom. This was a monumental accomplishment for him.”
Gonzalez’s historic game against UCLA was just a fraction of one of the best seasons from any college kicker in recent memory. He made 92 percent of his field goals, seven of which were from beyond 50 yards.
His special teams counterpart, punter Matt Haack, shares a special bond with Gonzalez that started when they were both freshmen. They have experienced all of the ups and downs together at ASU.
As Gonzalez’s holder on all field goals and extra points, Haack has played an important and unsung role in the kicker’s success.
“He’s like a brother to me,” Gonzalez said. “We do everything together. We grew up together basically in college. The process of college, being an athlete or a regular student, you still grow up a lot. Being able to do that with Matt and being able to experience a lot has been awesome. I couldn’t ask for a better partner to do it with.”
Haack has seen first-hand the method to Gonzalez’s madness, having been by his side during practices as well.
“He goes out there every day in practice and isn’t missing any kicks,” Haack said. “When he does he is doing it over and making it. He is very meticulous in his routines. He’s about as solid mentally as any kicker out there.”
In addition to Haack, the Sun Devils coaching staff – specifically Graham and special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum – have been instrumental in Gonzalez’s career.
Graham, along with former special teams coordinator Joe Lorig, brought him to Tempe. Gonzalez said that the confidence and assured playing time that both of them gave him was the decisive factor in his decision.
“Coach Graham has had a tremendous impact on my life as a whole,” Gonzalez said. “He has preached serving the community and stuff like that. Without him, I honestly wouldn’t be here.”
Slocum was not hired until Gonzalez’s junior year, but has mentored him in regards to his mechanics and his mindset by telling him how to behave like a pro at the college level.
As the sun sets on his storied career at ASU, Gonzalez has hardware on his mind. He is one of the three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, which will be handed out in Atlanta on Thursday.
If he is selected as the winner, Gonzalez would be only the second Sun Devil, along with Thomas Weber in 2007, to ever take home the award.
After that, he will begin his preparation for the Senior Bowl, the premier annual showcase of the best senior NFL draft prospects in the country.
But it’s a special upcoming event to round out his time in Tempe that will make Gonzalez and his family the most proud.
“It will be once I graduate,” he said. “You can have all the football accolades, but once I graduate it will probably be the best part. I know that’s my dad’s biggest goal.”