It’s not often that the punter on the football team is a fan favorite, but when you’re among the best in the nation at what you do and are an occasional offensive weapon, senior Kai Kroeger is pretty much a household name among Gamecock fans.
“I don’t get recognized as much as some think,” said Kroeger, who is studying history with a criminal justice minor and aspires to be an FBI agent. “It also depends on who I’m with. Sometimes, if I’m with other players, they’ll get recognized first. I don’t think anyone ever thinks the punter would get recognized, but it’s definitely cool when that happens.”
Even if you don’t know his face, it’s hard not to recognize how important the Illinois native is to the Gamecocks. Kroeger earned First Team All-American and First Team All-SEC honors last year and was one of ten semifinalists for the Ray Guy award that is presented to the nation’s top punter after leading the SEC with a 46.1 yards per punt average. Unfortunately, he wasn’t listed as a finalist for the award, and that serves as some motivation.
“I was only a junior last year and was fortunate enough to be on a bunch of lists,” said Kroeger. “I’m just looking at the future and how I can do better. I always have team goals and a team mentality first. I’ve had punts that were 60 yards in the air, but if they’re not very high, then the runner is able to get a decent return. I’d like to improve on my net average and keep the punts inside the 20 above fifty percent.”
Kroeger’s star has also risen because of some of his non-kicking plays. Under special teams coordinator Pete Lembo, South Carolina’s special teams have kept opponents on their toes with various fakes which has seen Kroeger go six for six on pass attempts in his career, with three touchdown passes.
“The most memorable one for me, even though we didn’t win the game, has to be the one in the bowl game against Notre Dame to Hunter (Rogers),” said Kroeger, who also played quarterback for three years in high school. “I really don’t have much time to think about it. We’ve run it in practice, so I know what to do. As long as the defense does what they think it will do, we should be fine. Growing up, I had always done some quarterback training with a local community college and division three college quarterback coaches, so it’s paid off.”
“We’ve been able to do stuff here that impacts the game in a tremendous way. I love being a part of that.”
Kroeger is also the holder for field goals and extra points, which can be a pressure-packed job, but making a good punt has all kinds of pressure as well.
“A punt can change the game or go terribly wrong,” Kroeger said. “It’s an under-the-radar job, but we’ve been able to do stuff here that impacts the game in a tremendous way. I love being a part of that.”
While he may not be on the field for many plays each Saturday, Kroeger takes on a leadership role in some capacity.
“Throughout my four years here, I’ve learned from people who were here before me,” Kroeger said. “Guys like (former kicker) Parker White have shown me how to lead the team in different ways. A lot of it comes from gaining trust from your teammates and talking with different guys. I talk or play golf with guys like (defensive lineman) Alex Huntley and (tight end) Trey Knox and just talk about things we all like to do. It’s a lot of off the field stuff.”
As he prepares for the upcoming season, in addition to improving his punting numbers, he wouldn’t mind adding some other stats.
“I’ve thrown some touchdowns, so maybe I could catch one or run one in on a fake,” Kroeger said. “You have to keep opponents on their toes.”