The right leg of Austin Barnes placed the O'Fallon High senior punter and kicker in an enviable position this winter.
Considered one of the top senior punting recruits in the nation, Barnes had full scholarship offers from Eastern Michigan, Southeast Missouri State, Texas Southern and Florida Atlantic.
Alabama beat Notre Dame in the national championship game and both school offered Barnes a chance to join their teams as a preferred walk-on.
There would be no scholarship money his freshman year, but a shot at earning a scholarship if he became the starter.
In the end, Barnes committed to Eastern Michigan and will sign a letter of intent with the Mid-America Conference school on Wednesday.
"I come from a single-parent home and I'd rather come out of a college with a degree and have no debt," Barnes said. "I couldn't be happier. I knew that God would provide a scholarship for me -- and I knew that in my heart that it's very rare for a specialist such as myself to get a full-ride scholarship to a Division I school."
There is no disputing that point.
Because of scholarship restrictions, many Division I programs only make one scholarship available for kickers, punters and long-snappers every three or four years.
"Very rarely are many (punters or kickers) offered scholarships until January, so it's such a waiting process," O'Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst said. "They're always the last to get the offers, so it's definitely a waiting process."
Many of the nation's top kicking specialists began their careers as walk-ons.
Competition is fierce, especially since many games are won or lost on the success or failure of special teams play.
"Most schools are going to want to have a kicker be a preferred walk-on because in most cases they only have one on scholarship," O'Fallon coach Brandon Joggerst said. "That window of opportunity is very slim for players to get a full scholarship at the Division I level. Fortunately for Austin it worked out."
The process was still extremely difficult.
Barnes (6-foot, 195 pounds) spent much of the last four years working on his form as a kicker and punter at O'Fallon and also while attending college kicking camps in the Midwest and elsewhere.
Barnes was the News-Democrat's first-team All-Area punter as a junior and senior. He averaged 44.86 yards on 28 punts this season, including a 66-yarder, and he routinely boomed kickoffs out of the end zone.
Barnes also kicked four field goals and 36 extra points.
He was an alternate selection to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl this sesaon and also honorable mention all-state.
In addition, Barnes got further exposure with strong performances last summer against some of the nation's top punters at elite specialist camps offered by Kohl's Kicking, Punting and Long-Snapping Camps and the National Camp Series (NCS).
At a Kohl's national kicking event in Whitewater, Wis., Barnes' skills helped him place second out of 200 punters. At the NCS event, held in Orlando, Fla., was placed first out of close to 250 competitors.
Barnes' recruiting tools also included an impressive highlight video put together by Joggerst and the O'Fallon coaching staff.
"I think it played the main role in attracting schools," Barnes said. "Those specialty camps always get your name out there, so that helped me a lot, too. If you perform well, then they advertise you out there."
All that publicity helped Barnes in his bid to land a scholarship. But so did the undying support from his mother, Angela Barnes, and grandfather Bill Barnes, along with strength and conditioning coach Jaron Dent.
While other kickers and punters from the metro-east have gone on to success elsewhere, probably the most successful was Alton Marquette High all-state kicker-punter Craig Hentrich.
Hentrich was a punter and kicker at Notre Dame, where he set a school record with a 44.1-yard punting average. He also had a 15-year career as an NFL punter with the New York Jets, Green Bay Packers and Tennessee Titans..
He played in two Pro Bowls, made two All-Pro teams and awon a Super Bowl with the Packers.
For now, Barnes is just hoping his talent will pay for his college tuition and room and board.
"He kept hearing from Alabama and Miami and Minnesota was actually very persistent up until the last week," Joggerst said. "They all wanted him to come and be a preferred walk-on. But with the cost of college, you're going to take the one offer that's for sure at the time rather than going somewhere and things not work out."
While Barnes already had several offers in hand, things with Eastern Michigan --located 35 miles west of Detroit in Ypsilanti, Mich. -- heated up just before Christmas.
"They started recruiting me in mid-December and I went on the official visit," he said. "They wanted to see what kind of kid I was at first before they offered me."
The Eastern Michigan staff never saw Barnes punt in person, basically relying on his highlight video and other recruiting information available on the Internet.
When the offer finally came, Barnes was sold.
"I just knew in my heart that Eastern Michigan was the place for me," he said. "As soon as I got there I just knew it. The coaching staff were really good guys and I felt like family when I was there. The academics were really good, too."
Asked for advice he would give to other metro-east kickers and punters hoping to land a scholarship, Barnes said "Keep your options open. Evaluate everything and pick the school that you feel most comfortable with.
"Hard work definitely pays off. You definitely have to put the hard work in."