USC senior punter Kyle Negrete was born to play football. His father and uncle both played football at Fresno State. His grandfather, Jim Sweeney, was a former head coach at Fresno State (and two other colleges) with more than 200 career wins. The field at Fresno State is named after him. Negrete also has two cousins who currently play college football.
With that kind of background, it's no surprise that he found a home on the gridiron. The surprise is that he's making his mark as a punter. It's not that he couldn't punt -- he averaged 46.7 yards per punt as a senior at Clovis (Calif.) Clovis West HS in 2007. It's just that he also was an accomplished defensive player -- one who was named MVP of his high school team and third team All-State -- after totaling 105 tackles and eight interceptions.
Negrete started off at the University of San Diego where he played two years (2008-09) as a punter and linebacker. He was named first team All-League as a sophomore punter who also added 11 tackles on defense. Negrete transferred to USC in 2010 and sat out that season as a redshirt.
Negrete won the Trojans starting punter job in 2011 and finished the season with a 40.1 yards per punt average (37.4 net). Of his 39 punts, 19 went inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
WeAreSC: You were a former high school and college defensive player; did you envision that your college future would come as a punter?
Negrete: No, it's just the way things worked out. I had herniated some discs in my back after my second season at the University of San Diego and eventually had back surgery. I call it a blessing in disguise, because I had never taken punting very seriously. In high school I was just a guy who could punt the ball far and keep it away from the returner. That injury was kind of the point where I turned to punting as a focus and an opportunity to play football at the highest level.
WeAreSC: Was USC the school you always wanted to get to, or did this just happen to be the school you ended up choosing?
Negrete: To be completely honest, I actually grew up a Stanford Cardinal fan. I just idolized what it represented academically. In the back of my mind I saw the success of USC too, with (Matt) Leinart and (Rey) Maualuga and coach Pete Carroll. I saw the dynasty they built, and it was almost surreal to me. To be here now -- at a school that offers so much academically and athletically -- is just a huge blessing for me.
WeAreSC: You had a previous relationship with USC special teams coach John Baxter from growing up in Fresno and with your connection to the Fresno State program. Did he help influence your decision to come to USC?
Negrete: Coach John Baxter was a Bulldog and my grandfather was Jim Sweeney, one of the greatest Bulldogs that ever lived. I grew up a Bulldog and had a lot of dealings with Coach Baxter while growing up. He actually recruited me to come to Fresno State, but I was at a place where I wanted to play defense in addition to punting, but Fresno State didn't want me to do that. When I made the decision to leave USD, and I heard that he was coming to USC, I was really excited about the possibility of coming here, because I knew how great he was as a coach.
WeAreSC: Talk about what makes John Baxter such a successful special teams coach.
Negrete: He's a teacher first, a mentor, and he puts you in position to be successful. He has a saying "simple and effective schemes," it's something we say before each special teams meeting. He preaches that it's not about the hype, it's about the prep. There is no one in the country who gets a team more prepared for special teams than coach John Baxter. You can quote me on that in bold and with exclamation points.
WeAreSC: A great example of that is the fake punt against Washington and your physical finish to the play. It got a huge reaction from your teammates and the fans and helped turn the momentum of an important football game.
Negrete: Looking back, I watch the film of that play and I think of all the preparation that we put in. We had watched film on Washington and found something we thought could work. We saw it happen during the game, and we made the call for the fake. That's what is so unique and special about it is that the players called the play on the field. It was a play where all 10 guys in front of me had to do their job in order for it to be successful. The night before, Coach Kiffin had told me to slide, and I told him, "There's no way I'm going to slide." It was cool to put a stamp at the end of the play.
WeAreSC: What are the things you're looking to work on this spring?
Negrete: There are many things you can always improve on in punting. One thing we were very consistent with last year was placement. We didn't have one ball go inside the hash marks. That's very rare. A lot of teams just punt right down the middle of the field but our punting philosophy is to get the ball on the ground. We want to keep the ball out of the hands of the punt returner, because he's usually one of the best athletes on the field. We only allowed 13 returns all of last year. That limits the number of chances for a big return play. We also had zero touchbacks, and that's extremely important because part of the success of the offense can be attributed to that field position battle we won throughout the year.
WeAreSC: You're a walk-on right now. Under normal scholarship circumstances, a returning starter walk-on would be rewarded with a scholarship, but these aren't normal circumstances these days. Has Coach Kiffin said anything to you about the possibility of a scholarship?
WeAreSC: Talk about what you've seen from Lane Kiffin in his two years as coach of the Trojans. He talked openly this year about how this team made him a better person and coach.
Negrete: It's been really cool to see Coach Kiffin transform the way that he coaches, the way that he approaches the media and the public. I do think this team has had a positive impact on him. There were a lot of unanswered questions about Coach Kiffin when he came in, questions about this program after the Pete Carroll era, but this is Coach Kiffin's team now. These are his players. It's remarkable to see what's happening and to be a part of it.
WeAreSC: One of the storylines in sports recently has involved athletes and their faith with guys like Matt Barkley and Tim Tebow who are in the spotlight. Talk about what that means for someone like you who is open about his faith on social media.
Negrete: It's been great to see so many people in sports like Matt Barkley, Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin, who express their faith is such a unique and honorable way. At the end of the day, that's what I'm called to do, and that's how I'm called to live. My best friend is Matt Barkley, he's in the spotlight because he's "the guy" and I think that people -- whether they are a believer or not -- can gravitate to someone like Matt, who is a respectful person and lives his life the way that he does. Matt and I took a trip to Nigeria last year to work at an orphanage, and this summer we look forward to another opportunity to go serve people around the world.
WeAreSC: What is your major and when will you graduate?
Negrete: I'm in the Marshall School of Business with a concentration in finance. I've got eight units left in my major that I've saved to take in the fall, so I'll be able to do that and take one more class in the fall to meet the minimum requirements.
WeAreSC: What are your goals after your football career is done?
Negrete: My main goal right now is to continue playing at the next level. I think anyone who plays here at USC will look to that as a goal. If that weren't to work out I would look at something in the financial world. I've talked to Mr. Pat Haden (USC athletic director) about hedge funds and the venture capital business because I feel like that's something which fits my skill set.
Garry Paskwietz is the publisher of WeAreSC.com and has covered the Trojans since 1997. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.