Elaine Adams won’t be replacing her husband, Jon, as Nottingham High football coach any time soon. But the man known as Big Dawg may want to consider her as a talent evaluator when it comes to special teams, as the journey of their son Stephen seems to indicate Mrs. Dawg knows her stuff.
“When I was younger, I loved to kick the ball into the net and on the sidelines; but a few those times I may have missed the net,” Stephen Adams said. “My mom would always bust on me about how I should punt and how I could be such an asset to a team if they needed a punter. I truthfully never had any interest.”
Nor did Jon, as Stephen’s high school punting career consisted of one year on the JV team, a few practice punts with the varsity, and one actual varsity game against Notre Dame. That should have been a sign, as Adams was named the Special Teams Player of the Week by the 12th Man TD Club that week.
Punting remained on the back-burner throughout high school and his first month in college, when Albright College recruited Adams as a quarterback.
“They clearly had guys ahead of me in the pecking order,” he said. “When I was not getting any reps in camp, I became frustrated and moved over to receiver.”
That led to Adams sustaining a concussion after just a few days, forcing him to withdraw from school. The injury occurred in August and classes had yet to start.
Disillusioned by the experience, Adams returned to help coach the Nottingham freshman team. He also contacted Delaware Valley College, which was the only other school to recruit him beside Albright. A chat with assistant coach Nick Brady revealed that DelVal still had interest in Adams, and he began attending the Doylestown, Pennsylvania, school in January 2015.
The Rams had just graduated one of the school’s all-time quarterbacks in Aaron Wilmer, so Adams was joining several other transfers in an attempt to earn the job.
No one knew at the time, but the birth of a punter was underway.
Three days into the 2015 training camp, the coaches asked anyone who could punt to show what they could do. Adams volunteered and began booming a few that impressed the coaches.
A few days later he received a compliment from the quarterbacks’ coach, which was also a way of learning he was not in the plans behind center.
“He told me it would be in my best interest to try this punting thing out; because in his words I ‘had a freakin’ leeeeggggg,’” Adams said. “After practice, I called my dad, and he thought it was a good idea to make the move because I would actually be playing; being that I was third or fourth on the quarterback depth chart. I went to the coaches the next day and told them I would make the move and the rest is history.”
And what a history it is becoming. Adams completed his junior season as a decorated punter on one of the nation’s top Division III programs. The Rams went 12-1 and reached the playoff quarterfinals before dropping a heart-breaking, 31-28 decision to Brockport on a last-second field goal.
Adams finished 19th in the nation in punting, nailing 58 balls for a 40.3 average. During the regular season he put 13 kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard line, and he blasted five punts for more than 50 yards.
Those numbers earned Adams honorable mention on the All-America team, as well as first-team honors on both the D3foootball.com’s All-East Region team and Middle Atlantic Conference’s All-Conference team. He set expectations of making All-Conference after flirting with the honor during his first two seasons.
“Being so close and not achieving that goal hurt, and I put that into every workout and every rep to make sure I would not be left off that list again,” he said. “The real surprise came from being selected to the All-East Region team, although that was another goal I had set. God really bestowed another blessing and honor that I am just so truly grateful for.”
‘He had his career season and as a coach it was a total pleasure to work with an athlete of his magnitude.’
It has been a steady rise for Adams and his leg. As a freshman he punted 37 times for a 32.6 average; had four punts over 50 yards and placed 11 inside the 20. A year later he averaged 35.2 yards on 49 punts, with nine kicks inside the 20. He made the MAC All-Academic Honor Roll both years.
Steve Hellings, DelVal’s assistant special teams coordinator and kicking coach, has loved watching the progress.
“Steve’s season was definitely one for the record books,” Hellings said. “He had his career season and as a coach it was a total pleasure to work with an athlete of his magnitude.”
Hellings lauded Adams’ work ethic and attitude, remarking that the energy he brings to the field every day is contagious. That’s not often said about a punter.
“He takes so much pride in his craft and it shows,” Hellings said. “In the punting world, if you don’t have a consistent drop (onto the foot), you’ll struggle to be successful. There are a lot of mechanics that go into the motion, and Steve comes day in and day out working to perfect those. Whether it be extra drop laps around the track before or after practice, to working with the long snapper to work on operation time to take 2.2 seconds or less from snap to kick.”
Not surprisingly, the coach’s son is admired by the staff.
“Steve is extremely coachable,” Hellings said. “Although he was only a junior he still served as a role model for the underclassmen to see what hard work will get you in the long run. Overall, you can’t ask for much more from him.”
Adams initially missed playing quarterback, which he spent a lifetime doing. He admitted that when he officially won the punting job his thoughts were all over the place. He thought about his dashed boyhood goals of someday being a college quarterback with NFL hopes. Because DelVal was his second school in a year, Adams wondered if that was a sign to give up football and look elsewhere. He also struggled with his confidence as a punter, as he had little command of the position and Hellings was not on staff during his freshman year.
“I did not really understand the position past just kicking it,” Adams said. “We didn’t have a kicking coach at the time, so with that came some frustrating times that I really just had to work out myself.”
And, of course, there was the ego thing.
“I went from being ‘The Man’ on the field and getting a ton of attention, to now being a role player, so that forced a major attitude adjustment; and as a 19-year-old kid, it was just another challenge,” Adams said.
Those doubts disappeared in Adams first collegiate game, when his first punt went over 64 yards and he finished just 4/10ths of a yard shy of the school’s punting average record for one game. He suddenly shifted his approach and decided that he would become a key part of an up-and-coming DelVal team.
Adams gives Hellings all the credit for his ascension.
“He came in last year and we had to change a lot in my game, but with the time we put in we have been able to make major changes in my game, which has helped me produce,” Adams said. “The most important thing in punting is the drop. The drop has to lay flat, and be in the right place for your foot to make good contact on the ball. Hangtime, distance, placement all follows after that with good explosion, body angles, and having the toe pointed out as opposed to up.”
There are other nuances as well, such as how to approach a punt depending on where the ball is on the field. Does he arc the kick for hang time; does he blast it to get a good roll? They were all details that Adams has been gradually picking up.
And while he has indeed, gone from the sport’s glamour position to one of it’s more anonymous spots, Adams has learned just how important his role is to a team.
“A punter is one of the most dangerous players; they can either really help you or really hurt you,” said Adams, who credited his entire punting unit for his honors this year. “Field position means absolutely everything. The primary goal as a punter is not to do anything that will hurt the defense or put them in a bad situation. When the time comes to flip the field, it is critical that you do that so the opposing offense has to drive further to score. If you have to pin them, it’s critical that you do so, so the defense can force a punt that could help set the offense up for a shorter field to score.”
Hellings agrees, saying, “almost everyone overlooks the punter in a game, (but) in the modern day game of football it’s definitely a big time weapon to have in your arsenal as a coach.”
Elaine Adams knew her son was just that all along.
“Sure enough, here I am today finishing up my third season as a starting punter,” Adams said. “So she definitely could not have been more right.”