In lining up for a kickoff return, Saint Francis senior Austin Coleman admits to getting tunnel vision. Every kick is different, but his approach and thought process is the same every time.
That attention to detail is one of the reasons Coleman is set to go down in history as one of the most prolific return men in NAIA history while getting some looks from NFL scouts, some of which believe he could be a late-round draft pick come April.
“When the ball leaves the kicker’s foot, I first find the ball in the sun, make sure I catch it then look field to see how the blockers set up,” Coleman said. “It is the same process every time, if you do not catch the football then nothing good can happen.”
Heading into Saturday’s NAIA Football Championship Series game against visiting Baker University, Coleman is still tied for the most kick returns for touchdowns in NAIA history with seven, with every kick an opportunity to sit alone atop the record books.
Not bad for a player who returned just one kick in high school at Harding and did not begin fielding kicks for Saint Francis until his sophomore season.
“We had a nice returner (in Xavier Carr) at Harding and he was pretty big bag there,” Coleman said. “I remember I got one kickoff return in high school and I almost took it to the house. It was maybe a 50 yard return.”
Depth at the returner position led to Coleman not getting much of a shot with Saint Francis until his sophomore season. He returned one kick of a score that year, then exploded onto the scene with four more a year ago.
While the athletic ability has always been there, the mental game has not. Saint Francis coach Kevin Donley challenged Coleman to become a more complete player prior to this season and focus more on his wide receiver game and not just settle for the returner-only label.
Coleman has done that. After catching just 19 passes for 405 yards last season while excelling in the return game, the senior has been able to excel at both this year with 40 catches for 620 yards and seven touchdowns. He attributes the success to his work in the offseason.
“All summer I was working on my footwork and route running,” Coleman said. “I had to get off the ball and get quick off the ball.”
To the Saint Francis coaching staff, it was all about consistency.
“You have to have a pattern of consistent effort and performance,” Donley said. “He has taken care of that. He doesn’t need much of a crease to get in there and take it all the way.
“We would love to see him break that kickoff return record.”
With success comes, in some instances, less chances to make a difference. As of late, Coleman has seen less kicks come his way.
“Against Siena Heights, they were kicking out of bounds,” Coleman said. “One of their coaches said, ‘Yeah, No. 2 (Coleman’s number), we have seen you too many times on YouTube, we don’t want to see it in reality.”
Kickoff for Saint Francis’ first NAIA Football Championship Series home game since 2008 is set for noon on Saturday.