Trojans’ punter leads with more than leg

When the number of scholarships allotted for a college football team is cut down by sanctions, as USC has experienced these past two seasons, it can be hard for special teams players like senior Kyle Negrete to earn one of those precious free rides through school — especially when there’s already a scholarship punter on the roster.

Directional punting · In 2011, Negrete placed 19 of his 39 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line without recording a touchback. – Photo courtesy of USC Sports Information

Redshirt freshman punter Kris Albarado has held one of USC’s coveted 75 football scholarships since he arrived on campus last fall, and with the scholarship reductions caused by the team’s probation, it seemed unlikely that the Trojans would be able to give another one to a second punter.

But last week, USC coach Lane Kiffin announced that Negrete, who had been a walk-on since transferring from San Diego in 2010, had defied the odds. This season he will punt without having to pay a dime for his USC education.

It’s been an uphill battle for Negrete, whose father paid for his USC education as he effectively punted for free last year. Throughout this offseason, he had to battle Albarado for the starting punting job after the two were listed as co-starters in the spring.

“It’s fun to come into camp and have to compete,” Negrete said. “I love having the question mark. That’s what we sign up for as a Trojan.”

You won’t hear him complaining. Not after all he’s been through.

Before every practice and game, Negrete writes “5/17/02” on his left arm to commemorate his mother, Patty, who passed away on that date from breast cancer.

Since then, he has worked to honor her memory.

“Just seeing the way my mom battled, in the last couple weeks of her life … that’s something that really fuels me,” Negrete said. “The fire in my eyes when I’m out here working and training — that’s where that comes from.”

Even if Negrete doesn’t play a snap for the Trojans this season, he’s already accomplished enough off the field to make any mother proud.

Soon after Patty Negrete’s death, Kyle and his family founded the “Patty Project,” a nonprofit that pairs adult mentors with inner-city elementary school children near Fresno, Calif.

“Since I was young, I’ve been taught to give back, to feed the needy and serve the poor,” Negrete said. “It’s just a part of the way that I was raised, having that servant’s heart.”

While he was at San Diego, Negrete founded “Best Buddies,” a mentoring program for student-athletes to spend time with people with autism.

In 2010, he spent his winter break with quarterback Matt Barkley in Nigeria doing service work.

This past spring break, he and 15 of his teammates traveled to Haiti to build houses for those still recovering from the destructive earthquake that hit the island in January 2010.

Negrete says that the 16 Trojans who traveled were the leaders and core foundation of the team, and Barkley says that Negrete is included in that group of leaders.

“He’s a punter, but he does have a voice,” Barkley said. “He’s not always the center of attention on the field, but he carries himself in a manner as if he’s a starting linebacker or running back, because he has that kind of poise and character.”

In July, Negrete was one of 52 Football Bowl Subdivision athletes nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team, which honors college football players who are committed to making a difference in their communities. A committee will pare that list down to 11 award recipients in September.

“It’s fun to have that labeled with you because I think it’s a great award,” Negrete said. “[But] I don’t do the things that I do for recognition.”

Negrete hasn’t been nationally recognized yet for his work on the gridiron, but if he improves his numbers from last year, it’ll be hard for pundits to ignore him.

Last season, 19 of Negrete’s 39 punts pinned opponents within their own 20-yard lines, but not one went into the end zone for a touchback. That 19:0 ratio was the best of any punter in the nation.

His 40.1-yard average left something to be desired, though, and Albarado’s powerful leg threatened to take away the punting job in the offseason. Negrete worked to improve his leg strength in the offseason, and he’s confident that he’s the best man for the job, albeit a job the Trojans are hoping they won’t have to do too often.

When Kiffin announced that Negrete had earned a scholarship, he added that Negrete hadn’t yet sewn up the starting job.

“I had to earn my spot [two years ago], and that’s the same place that I’m at now,” Negrete said. “I love that stuff. That’s why we come here, and that’s why a lot of people don’t — because they don’t want to compete; they want everything to be handed to them. Here [at USC], you have to earn everything.”

No matter what happens this season, it’s safe to say Negrete has not only earned his scholarship but also the respect his teammates afford him as a leader on a team with no shortage of superstars.

“He’s done more around here than a number of our guys on scholarship,” Kiffin said.