Al Golden has been the head coach at the University of Miami since December 2010. But Golden also serves as the Hurricanes’ special teams coordinator, which makes him a valuable resource for information on new Bears punter Pat O’Donnell.
The Bears selected O’Donnell in the sixth round of the NFL draft last weekend, immediately making him the frontrunner to win a competition for the punting job over both Drew Butler and Tress Way.
In an interview with the Tribune this week, Golden offered up his assessment of O’Donnell’s NFL potential and the areas of his game that need improvement.
Q: Obviously Pat was very productive for you guys last season in the one season you had with him after he transferred in from Cincinnati. What stood out to you about what he brought to the table and in what ways did he grow as a punter while he was there?
AG: I think clearly his leg strength when he arrived was exceptional. His explosiveness. You could feel the ball leave his leg and really explode. I think the thing that was most impressive was his commitment to a process and the fact that he improved as a senior. Which is really hard to do when you’ve had the body of work that he had. Pat is very meticulous. Almost like a golfer who’d go to the range, he’s that kind of a grinder with his process and his technique. And as I said, the biggest thing that separates him is his ability and drive to improve and adhere to that process. Because his operation time improved. He didn’t lose any distance. He was near the top of the NCAA in distance. But what most people don’t know is that he made dramatic improvements in his operation time and then also in his plus-territory kicking, his pooch punts.
Q: When did you first become aware that he was looking to transfer for personal reasons? (O’Donnell said his father, who lives in south Florida, was diagnosed with cancer.)
AG: It was in the spring, after his spring semester (in 2013). We were in the market and we were alerted to the fact that Pat was looking. It was a perfect match right away. He wanted to come to graduate school here at the University of Miami. He’s from south Florida. And we were in the market for a punter.
Q: His athleticism is notable. He goes to the combine and bench presses 225 pounds 23 times. He’s a bigger guy. What stood out?
AG: He looks like a SAM linebacker. Honestly. And I think he garnered the respect of everybody in our organization with his ability to compete with everybody, not only in the weight room but in the conditioning. Which was phenomenal. For him to come from a different program and yet be able to do it from a conditioning standpoint was extraordinary.
Q: When you see that effort and the strength at the combine, it jumps off the page at everybody. What struck you about that from a punter?
AG: He’s an athlete, an overall athlete. He’s got length, he has strength, he’s explosive. And more than anything, I think it shows his unselfishness and his desire to be part of the team as a whole and not just stand alone. That’s unique.
Q: He comes to the NFL level and to a team in the Bears that prioritizes directional kicking. How much of that was he asked to do with you guys and what does he offer there.
AG: We did it a lot. And he’s very prepared for that. Again, I think his operation time and his plus-territory pooch punts were two areas where he really, really improved coming down the stretch of his senior year. He was always good at directional punting. And we did some of that. So I think he should have the whole toolbox and a really good foundation to grow from. And I’m glad he’ll have a chance to work with Robbie Gould as well. That, to me, is awesome.
Q: At this level, obviously, even as a specialist there will be some challenges and some eye-opening experiences. What are the biggest things Pat will need to polish up to strengthen his weaknesses.
AG: In terms of his overall operation, he’ll have to get sharper. And there are a lot more directional kicks at that level than there are here. So I think those two areas will be the ones he’ll need to improve most on.
Q: When you mention Robbie and being excited that Pat will be around him, as a coach what strikes you about that opportunity?
AG: Robbie’s a blue-collar, self-made professional. He’s a guy who took an arduous road to his success and he’s never forgotten that. He’s never forgotten where he’s from and he’s never forgotten his work ethic and the adversity he’s had to overcome to be where he is. I think that will give Pat great perspective. And I know Robbie can offer tremendous insight.
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