Austin Jones didn’t know what he tore, but he knew something was wrong when he felt a pop in his left knee.
A Memphis player blocked Jones in the back during a kickoff return for a touchdown in the Tigers’ win on Oct. 6. The 26-yard field goal he missed in the fourth quarter was his last attempt of 2016. Tests revealed he had a torn ACL. Doctors estimated it would take him five to seven months to regain full strength.
Jones, a right-footed kicker, injured his plant leg. He said he couldn’t kick until about the first week of spring practice, five months after the injury. Ed Foley, the tight ends and special teams coach, said Jones made 11-of-11 extra-point attempts on one step during practice on April 15. He started full-step kicks last week.
“It’s been awhile since October,” Jones said. “So you know, actually getting out there on the field, full pads, cleats on, helmet on, it feels good.”
The Owls’ senior kicker entered the Memphis game with a school record 17 consecutive made field goal attempts and extended his streak to 19 before he missed his first two kicks of the season in the second half.
Jones made 23-of-28 field goal attempts in 2015 to set a new school record for made field goal attempts in a season. He also broke the record most points by a kicker and highest field goal percentage with a minimum of 20 attempts.
While Jones said he expects to be ready for fall preseason camp, Foley said he has “no idea” if Jones will be ready.
“To kick a one-step extra point and kick a 45-yarder to win a game and really be able to plant and lock on that thing are two different things,” Foley said. “So we’re just going to let that thing take care of itself and see how it is.”
Sophomore kicker Aaron Boumerhi took over the kicking duties after Jones’ injury. In nine games, he made 15-of-17 field goal attempts, including the first eight of his career. He made both of his attempts against Central Florida on Oct. 15. His 47-yarder, one yard short of his career-long, cut the Owls’ deficit to one possession late in the third quarter of their 26-25 win.
Boumerhi assumed punting duties this spring after the team suspended senior Alex Starzyk indefinitely earlier this month. Starzyk averaged 39 yards on his 53 punts in 2016, a decrease from the 42.4 yards per punt he averaged on 63 attempts in 2015.
Boumerhi averaged 58.3 yards per kickoff and produced 12 touchbacks last season. Foley said Boumerhi would have been the backup punter late last season in case Starzyk got hurt. Boumerhi punted at Philipsburg-Osceola Area High School in central Pennsylvania and took reps behind Starzyk in practices last year.
“He’s got a really good leg,” Foley said. “So it’s just a matter of getting him comfortable back there. And we haven’t even rugby punted yet, so he can do it if he needs to.”
“The ball can easily be kicked, we’ll find somebody to kick it,” Foley added. “But we’ll see what happens with Starz, and hopefully he’ll be back.”
Jones kicked field goals and kickoffs at Boone High School in Orlando, Florida but never punted, because the school had Tommy and Johnny Townsend, who play at the University of Florida.
Jones said he and the coaching staff haven’t discussed what his role might be once he returns to full health.
“We have a pretty good commodity with him and Boum both being back, and they both did a great job for us last year,” Foley said. “I expect that they would compete and do the same thing again next year.”
“Nothing’s going to change between us,” Boumerhi said. “Even if it’s competition, or anything like that, nothing is going to change because at the end of the day, we’re all specialists, we all stick together. We’re all close, really close.”
Evan Easterling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Evan_Easterling.