McGrane: Aztecs' Baron Gets Kick out of Notoriety
March 17, 2017
2016-17 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Aztecs' Baron Gets Kick out of Notoriety
As much as social media can provoke, peeve and otherwise polarize, it also has its --- albeit scarce --- moments when it can prove downright revelatory.
Take the case of San Diego State's John Baron II, who in 2016 not only became the first Aztec kicker to be named first-team All-Mountain West since the league's inception in 1999, but also discovered that Twitter can be used for more than a 140-word hatchet.
With the regular season winding down, word came that Baron had been named Star of the Week by the Palm Beach (Fla.) Sports Commission, which also hands out the Groza Award, presented annually to the nation's top collegiate kicker.
Let it be known that despite Groza being a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and kicking field goals beyond 50 yards when such feats were virtually unheard of, John Baron II didn't know Lou Groza from Lou Gehrig.
"What's funny is that during my (true) freshman year and my redshirt freshman year, I had no idea what the Groza Award even was," Baron said. "Then, last year, I started hearing about how there's this really big prestigious award that kickers can get. Everybody wants it; it's the pinnacle of kicking. But then I was named the Star of the Week and I got tagged on Twitter, and it said something about the Groza Award. It was hard to believe. I had no idea that anybody even knew who I was."
They do now.
During a sophomore season that was as revealing as it was remarkable, Baron, who had never attempted a single kick for the Aztecs, made good on 21-of-23 field goal attempts and 56-of-58 extra points. He led the team with 119 points, outdistancing All-America running back Donnel Pumphrey (112) and finishing 35th in the nation in scoring. Not only did Baron's 21 field goals surpass the school record established by his predecessor, Donny Hageman (20 in 2014), his field-goal percentage of 91.3 set a SDSU single-season record.
"He was just money," said Aztecs special teams coach Bobby Hauck. "He really hit the ground running and never looked back. I think there were a variety of reasons why his confidence just kept getting higher and higher, but he came in confident in September and just kept getting better and better. The idea of somebody becoming a first-team all-league kicker around here had become kind of a foreign concept."
Prior to Hageman connecting on 20-of-25 field-goal attempts two seasons prior, no Aztec kicker had posted a percentage of better than 77.3 in the previous seven seasons. Four times that percentage dipped below 70.0 percent. Twice it fell below 60.0 percent, with SDSU kickers making only 40.0 percent of their kicks in 2011 and 58.8 percent in 2009.
Enter Baron, a walk-on and former soccer player who never even attempted a field goal until his senior season at Chaparral High in Temecula. A walk-on, who before SDSU would win its second straight MW title last year, was one of 14 kickers in the nation to be named a semifinalist for the Groza Award.
"I was playing soccer and the head football coach asked if I'd come out and kick one day," said Baron, who was named the MVP of his high school soccer team as a senior. "He had me kickoff one time and was like, 'OK, you're on the team.' I came home and told my mom (Willi Jo). She hated it. She never wanted me to play football. I just told her, 'Look, I'm not going to get hurt or anything, I'm just going to kick.' But my dad let me do it.
"So I made the team and I was just doing kickoffs during my sophomore and junior year. I never even tried a field goal, because I didn't think I would ever do anything with football. But one of my friends told me I should go to a (kicking) camp, so after my junior year I went to a camp and started practicing field goals a lot. Then I went to a bigger camp and got ranked. All of the sudden I started thinking that I might be able to do this. After that, I started going to college camps. I came (to SDSU) and they offered to let me walk-on."
Which is fine, unless you're capable of making 91 percent of your field goals while racking up 119 points. That walk-on status changed midway through last season when Baron, who made 13 of his first 14 attempts, six of them beyond 40 yards, was offered a scholarship.
Said Baron: "It was pretty cool, because my parents had no idea it was coming. It was the first time anyone had ever offered me a scholarship."
Baron, who also averaged 62.7 yards on kickoffs with 33 touchbacks, ensured SDSU got its money's worth.
In a game in Logan, Utah, where unrelenting rain and wind might have prompted a head coach to pass on his placekicker, Baron was a perfect 4-of-4 on field-goal attempts, connecting from 21, 41, 43 and 23 yards as the Aztecs rolled to a 40-13 win over Utah State. Baron's performance earned him the league's Special Teams Player of the Week award.
“He was one of the best performers on that field," said head coach Rocky Long. "You can pick anybody out. DJ (Pumphrey) had over 200 yards rushing. What John Baron did was just as amazing. Not only did he make four field goals without a miss, a couple of them were fairly long and the weather conditions were ridiculous. For someone to perform at that level in those kinds of conditions is really something special."
"I'd never kicked in the rain, not even in high school," Baron said. "I was kind of nervous about it, and sure enough, the first kick that I had to make was a field goal. I remember a timeout being called, and as soon as the timeout was called it stopped raining. I was like, 'Yes! That's what I'm talking about!' The minute the timeout ended, it just started pouring.
"I remember jogging back onto the field and I could barely see the uprights. I thought, 'OK, I know they're out there somewhere in that direction, I'm just going to kick it that way.' It was a perfect snap, perfect hold and I just nailed it. I said to myself, "Alright, that's a pretty good kick.' From there on, I knew that if I could just kick it straight that I had a chance."
Which was all he ever wanted. A chance.
"We had a guy named Dan Carpenter at Montana (currently a free agent after nine years with the Dolphins and Bills) who came to a camp during his senior year of high school and we asked him if he'd ever (place-kicked)," said Hauck, the head coach at Montana from 2003-09. "He told us he hadn't, but we told him to get ready because we wanted to see what he could do.
"So we brought out a snapper and a holder he'd never worked with and we moved him all over the field. He made 23 of 26. He ended up with the whole staff around him and we offered him a scholarship right there. It's hard to quantify what kickers are going to do and how they're going to respond in game situations. When you find a guy that can do that, you've got something."
And when you find a guy like that, you make sure you have a scholarship at the ready.
"You hope that you can come in and have a season like (last year), but you never know," Baron said. "I was really happy with the way things went, but you always want to improve, you always want to get better, and I hope that I can. I never should've missed the kicks that I did last year. It wasn't like they were out of range or anything. I definitely could have done better."
If he's to do better in 2017 it will be without former Aztec punter Tanner Blain, Baron's holder who was part of last year's graduating class. At present, the holder is, appropriately enough, wide receiver Mikah Holder. Thus far, the transition has come off without a hitch.
Said Baron: "If he can get the ball down, I can make it."
Just ask the people handing out the Groza Award.