At 4:30 p.m., Bryce Christensen is done for the day.
He takes off his practice jersey and pads, revealing a Lambert lacrosse t-shirt, and gathers the footballs scattered on the turf near the Longhorns’ north end zone, tucking them into a gym bag. The rest of the football program is just getting started for the day, but after booting some punts across the field before practice and then taking part in the special teams period, Christensen is free to go.
Christensen is a vital part of the Longhorns, despite what the senior’s practice schedule would suggest. The previous Friday, in Lambert’s season opener against Mountain View, he booted all four of his kickoffs for touchbacks, hit three punts for an average of 38.7 yards and nailed a 48-yard field goal. He’ll likely have the opportunity to play at the Football Bowl Subdivision level in college.
But Christensen is a kicker, and only a kicker. For people like that, the routine is a bit different.
“It’s just me at this point,” he said.
Christensen is a decent athlete, as he’ll readily share. He runs the 40-yard dash in 4.7 seconds, benches 225 pounds and squats more than 300, numbers that would fit in with non-special teams players. Over the summer, he considered the possibility of playing receiver, given the significant holes Lambert had to fill at that position in 2017, but he figured that the possibility of getting hurt and not having any senior film was too big a risk.
Playing in college, after all, has been a goal almost since Christensen started playing kicking. He was mainly a soccer player until middle school, when he was kicking a football around with his friend one day and nailed one from around 35 yards, prompting the friend’s father to get Christensen to join the football team.
Christensen moved down to Forsyth County from Lancaster, Pennsylvania his freshman year. Lambert quarterbacks coach Justin Cox was one of the first coaches to see Christensen kick, and soon after that, he was dressing with the varsity team.
“You don’t have to see it – you can hear it,” Cox said of Christensen’s kicks. “It just sounded different.”
Christensen decided quickly that football was going to be his primary pursuit and embarked on the regimen of going to specialized camps and working with a kicking coach. He had a tendency to make unwelcome comments to coaches when he was younger – “I had a big head,” Christensen said – but those habits have since been corrected.
Christensen has had a couple motivations for dedicating himself to kicking. For one, his parents had made a deal that that only way Christensen was going to get his own car, one that he didn’t have to share with his siblings, was to get a full ride to college. There are fewer of those spots in college football for kickers, but the opportunities are there. Christensen currently has two offers, from Air Force and North Carolina Central.
“When you’re recruited (as a kicker), you’re always the last person to be recruited,” he said. “So to even have one offer right now, it’s kind of humbling.”
Then there was the early end to Christensen’s sophomore season, his first as a full-time starter after backing up Tanner Hall as a freshman. In a game against West Forsyth, Christensen made two mistakes on one punt. First, he looked up too quickly and dropped the snap. Then, rather than cutting his losses by tucking and running, Christensen tried to get a punt off. It was blocked, West ran it back for a touchdown, and Christensen broke his foot on the play.
Partly because of that, he became more willing to run when necessary, which he did twice for an average of 16.5 yards per carry as a junior in 2016.
“My runs on my highlights help me so much,” Christensen said. “The Air Force coach (said), ‘The reason I like you so much is you’re an athlete.’”
The summer before that junior season, Christensen found another reason to keep pushing. He was at a kicking camp in Wisconsin, and one of the trainers was Nebraska punter Sam Foltz. The two had struck up a rapport, and Foltz had followed and messaged Christensen on Instagram.
“The last thing I remember him saying to me was, ‘You going to ball out today?’” Christensen said.
Foltz died in a car crash on the night of July 23, on his way back from the camp.
“Ever since that, I’ve kind of worked for him,” Christensen said. “I know he’s watching.”
This past year has seen Christensen make numerous changes to his preparation. He decided not to play lacrosse in the spring and instead focused on kicking and bulking up in the weight room. He hit the camp circuit hard and, at the end of the summer, dumped his kicking trainer after a personal rift.
Christensen is currently ranked 100th nationally as a kicker and 90th nationally as a punter in the Kohl’s rankings, which gather the top players in the country. He thinks his stock can still rise, especially if he keeps improving on field goals.
The 48-yarder he hit against Mountain View was a career long, and it came with some adverse conditions: Christensen had to kick a quarterback ball, rather than one of the fatter, more worn ones he prefers.
“I think if I had my kicking ball in, there would have been 10 more yards to that ball,” he said.
Bryce Christensen just hit a 48-yard field goal. Yowza. 28-13, 9:18 3Q. pic.twitter.com/lyQuncfpg9— Ian Frazer (@ianmcfrazer) August 26, 2017
After the game, Christensen found video of that kick on Twitter and tagged a bunch of college coaches in a tweet. There isn’t one particular dream school that Christensen singles out: He hopes an offer from Georgia Southern is coming, and he could also see himself at Georgia State. Much of the time he gains from his abbreviated practice schedule is spent on studying for school, because kickers typically have less leeway with their grades.
Even with the long list of habits differentiating Christensen from the rest of the Longhorns, he feels as much a part of the team as any other player. His excitement about the 48-yarder last Friday didn’t overshadow his disappointment with the Longhorns’ 31-13 loss, and he sent an encouraging message to the senior group chat afterwards.
In the locker room before games, he bounces along with the rest of the team.
“I’ll get hyped up,” Christensen said, “even if I’m just a kicker.”