Harrison Leonard learns from NFL kicker before Polian watches practice
When Harrison Leonard met Stephen Gostkowski, he knew he had to seize the opportunity.
Leonard — a 2019 Notre Dame prospect that lives 40 miles south of Gillette Stadium — knew all about the New England Patriots kicker. John Carney, a former Notre Dame and NFL kicker before becoming a specialist trainer, only had to introduce the two at his camp this summer. Leonard did the rest.
“I was very impressed with how well he kicked and how he carried himself,” Gostkowski, a four-time Pro Bowler, told the Tribune Thursday evening. “He definitely reminded me of myself at that age. Not very often do you go to something like that and see a kid in high school that could kick the ball almost as well as guys in the NFL.”
Two sessions with Gostkowski helped Leonard further develop into a Justin Yoon replacement candidate. Shortly after the Michigan game Leonard received a text from Brian Polian, Notre Dame’s special teams coordinator.
Soon after Polian’s initial contact, Leonard took an official visit for Notre Dame’s home bout with Vanderbilt. Dropping baseball after this spring and immersing himself into the kicking camp circuit paid dividends.
“If there were a list, I would say Notre Dame is my favorite,” said Leonard, who doesn’t expect to play baseball at the college level. “Notre Dame has always been my dream school since growing up. I was always watching them. My mom’s side of the family lives out there. I’ve always loved Notre Dame and admired it.
“With my parents, we always talked about how if Notre Dame came to the table, it would be an automatic (yes).”
Polian intends on visiting Avon Old Farms (Conn.) High during Notre Dame’s bye week (Oct. 15-20), Leonard said. 247Sports’ No. 22 kicker will practice before Polian.
Should he impress, Leonard would be offered a preferred walk-on spot. He would then compete with sophomore Jonathan Doerer, who has struggled on kickoffs this season.
“I don’t really want to put too much pressure on it,” Leonard said. “It’s pretty far away. I really just want to focus on having a good senior year.”
Perhaps Leonard would never be in this situation had he remained a two-sport athlete. He shined as a shortstop and pitcher, throwing a fastball that topped out at 91 mph.
Gostkowski similarly played baseball — but on scholarship for the University of Memphis. He dropped the sport when New England drafted him in 2006.
“People tend to typecast guys that kick and think they stink at everything else, and they are not athletic,” Gostkowski said. “That might be the case at some levels, but when you get to the NFL, every punter and kicker that I’ve met was a star in some other sport or starred in another position growing up.”
Jamie Kohl, a decorated kicking coach who trains Leonard, advised the 5-11, 180-pounder to focus on football.
“Harrison has attended a lot of our training events over the last three years,” said Kohl, who has mentored a handful of NFL kickers. “He was a really good baseball player who has really devoted himself to his craft of kicking and punting for probably the last eight to 10 months.”
Kohl trained Leonard one-on-one across four days during March in Dallas. Two months later at Kohl’s camp in New Jersey, Leonard took home first place honors with a 77-yard kickoff. His 61-yarder earned him second place in the field goal competition.
“Coming from the northeast, sometimes it’s hard to get training of kicking and punting because of the weather and circumstances,” said Kohl, who ranks Leonard as his No. 7 kicker. “He has overcome that, and he truly is one of the better players in this country.
“He is a Division I type athlete. He has explosive hips and uses his body well.”
One day in October might decide if Leonard’s focused approach paid off. Gostkowski said there are good signs in Leonard’s demeanor.
“To have success at (kicking), you kind of have to have an unwavering confidence,” Gostkowski said. “Not cocky, but to be successful, you can’t be down on yourself too much.
“It just seemed like he had a lot of confidence in himself and his abilities. You can tell by how he carried himself, and not in a bad way, but in a good way.”
It might also help for Leonard to remember the advice Gostkowski offered during their session in Rhode Island.
“Worry about what you control,” recalled Leonard. “He said that at the end of the day, I just need to make kicks, and the more I worry, it is just going to hurt me. That was big mental advice, which was huge.”