By Tom Schad of The Commercial Appeal
When the University of Memphis was looking for a new kicker, special teams coordinator James Shibest embarked on a national search, traveling across the country to look at roughly 20 possibilities.
He landed on the all-state tennis player.
Shibest knew his reasoning would sound a little bit crazy. Justin Fuente thought it was a little bit crazy. But of all the recruits he saw, Shibest wanted to offer Jake Elliott a scholarship in large part because of what he had done on the tennis court.
“That tennis background kind of made me feel more comfortable about him handling [pressure],” Shibest said with a shrug. “I liked that part of it, that he’s been under pressure as just an individual guy.”
Three years later, Elliott is both the reigning American Athletic Conference special teams player of the year and the reigning AAC special teams player of the week. He has made 76.4 percent of his field goals, which would set a new program record, and he has never missed an extra point. Last season, he kicked a game-winning 31-yard field goal to beat Temple and a game-tying 55-yard field goal in the Miami Beach Bowl.
And he says the tennis connection is not as crazy as it may sound.
“I think it’s a huge mental aspect of it, because it’s you by yourself out there on the court,” Elliott said. “It’s kind of the same type of situation as being a kicker. It’s just kind of you. You’re isolated out there. It’s a huge thinking game, both tennis and kicking.”
Elliott doesn’t play much tennis these days, even though it’s been his main sport for most of his life. Growing up in a suburb of Chicago, he started tagging along with a friend on trips to the Salt Creek Tennis Club when he was 5 years old. By 7, he was competing in tournaments. And at 9 or 10, he achieved the highlight of his tennis career: Beating Jared Hiltzik, a two-time All-American at Illinois who is one of the sport’s rising stars.
“Just went out there and grinded out a nice three-set victory,” Elliott said with a laugh. “Obviously he’d kill me now.”
Tennis was Elliott’s first and best sport, but he was the quintessential all-around athlete — a key player on a travel soccer team, the shortstop on his Little League baseball team, the starting point guard on the Lyons Township High School basketball team.
“He’s really a terrific athlete, more than just a tennis player,” his high-school tennis coach Bill Wham said.
Football came along before Elliott’s junior year. Fittingly, he was out on the tennis court when one of the football coaches approached him. They needed a kicker and had heard Elliott had a leg, so he walked over to the football field and knocked a few through the goal posts. An invitation to join the team quickly followed.
“What the hell?” Elliott thought. “I’m not doing much during the fall anyways.”
It wasn’t too long before “what the hell” became “could I do this at the next level?”
Elliott participated in a showcase event through Kohl’s Kicking Camps in December of his senior year — a very late stage in the traditional recruiting timetable — and received 10 calls from college coaches in the next week. He said he had preferred walk-on offers at several Big Ten schools. Memphis made a larger commitment, offering him a scholarship and an opportunity to play immediately.
All the while, Elliott was still being recruited to play college tennis, sometimes by the same schools that had reached out to him about football.
“It was kind of funny because he’d go on recruiting visits for tennis and they’d always march him through the football stadium, because that’s like the big venue,” his father, Bruce Elliott, said. “They didn’t know he was being recruited for football at some of those schools.”
There was a possibility that Elliott could’ve played both sports at a smaller school, but he’s made football his focus at Memphis. He’s added between five and eight yards to his kickoffs since high school, developing what he describes as “a really quick leg” rather than a strong leg.
“It’s just how fast I can get my leg through a ball,” Elliott said. “A lot of that is just quick-twitch muscles.”
Whatever the descriptor, it’s worked well thus far this season — 22 of his 29 kickoffs have landed for touchbacks. And at a level where kicking can often be a question mark, Elliott’s also become an offensive weapon.
“In some ways, he can make your decisions on the plus side of the field more difficult about whether to go for it or not, because you feel so confident in your kicker,” Fuente said. “If you had somebody that you did not feel comfortable in, you’d continue to go for it. (But) I’m certainly not complaining.”
Only one kicker from Memphis has gone on to play in the NFL, and Elliott kicks with him a couple times every summer. Stephen Gostkowski of the New England Patriots occasionally returns to his alma mater for an offseason workout or two. If Elliott has a particularly strong game during the season, he’ll often have a text from Gostkowski waiting on his phone.
Elliott still plays tennis occasionally, but mostly during trips home in the offseason. He’s not even sure who else on the football team plays the sport, if anyone. “Nick Jacobs has talked about wanting to go out and hit once or twice, but I’m not sure how good he is,” Elliott said with a grin.
Yet in a way, he goes through the same mental process every time he steps onto the turf for a field goal. He blocks out the crowd and slips into a zone, much like a tennis match with a set on the line.
“When you get to set point or match point, that’s kicking. It’s the same dang mindset,” said Wham, his high-school tennis coach. “If you let the event take over, you’re looking at the stands and hearing the cheers, you’ll miss. You’ll miss the serve or you’ll miss the return or you’ll miss the kick. And Jake isn’t built that way.”
Still sound crazy? Maybe it is, Shibest concedes. Maybe the connection between tennis and kicking makes for a fine story in the newspaper but has no real weight.
“It may not matter,” Shibest said. “But it made me feel better about it.”