AUBURN, Ala. — During the summer Daniel Carlson joked about how much time he spent practicing in the Auburn Athletics Complex.
“He’s definitely a perfectionist,” Carlson’s girlfriend, Katherine Barker, said. “He’d be like, ‘If I’m still in the complex at this time, you need to send someone in for me; I’ve been there too long.’”
It wasn’t until after Auburn’s thrilling 18-13 win over No. 18 LSU on Saturday — in which Carlson nailed each of his six field goal attempts and scored all of Auburn’s points — that Carlson needed to be rescued.
Carlson’s “six kicks” broke his career high and tied Al Del Greco’s school record set in 1982. Carlson’s teammates hoisted him on their shoulders and carried him off the field during the victory celebration.
After the postgame frenzy and media requests, Carlson spent nearly an hour signing autographs and posing for pictures with fans outside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Just as the swarm of people started to disperse, a young Tigers fan misidentified wide receiver Will Hastings (also blond with blue eyes but six inches shorter) for Carlson, allowing an instant for the hero of the night, Katherine and their friends to escape the crowd.
The group went to dinner in at a local restaurant in Auburn, where nearly everyone who walked in the door stared, pointed or whispered in excitement.
Fans have good reason to be enthralled with Carlson. He was built to kick, but instead of depending on his natural talent, the Colorado native has relied on his work ethic, earning esteem and standing out as one of the nation’s best kickers.
In January, Florida State’s Roberto Aguayo became the first kicker in 16 years to declare early for the NFL Draft. Carlson could be the next college prospect to leave early for the pros. For now, Carlson is focusing on drilling longer field goals while Auburn fans hope he’ll wear orange and blue a little longer.
A kid with a knack
Growing up, Carlson was a skilled soccer player. He instinctively was good at other things he tried, too.
“He was just a really great athlete,” said Justin Miller, who became friends with Carlson in middle school. “He was always one of those kids who whether it was darts or bowling, or any other fun sport or activity, he was great at it.”
Before Carlson’s freshman year at The Classical Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the football special teams coordinator, Chris Coughlin, convinced the lanky midfielder to give football a try.
“I don’t even know if Daniel had ever touched a football before,” Coughlin said. “But he could sure kick one. Just a little bit of a flaw from 40 or 50 yards can make a big difference at the goalpost, so there were ups and downs on accuracy, but never on power.”
After realizing his potential as a kicker, Carlson began dedicating more time to football. He and Coughlin navigated the differences between a soccer kick (more of a swinging across motion putting spin on the ball) and a football kick (a vertical movement where the ball is lifted), and kept seeing improvement.
Carlson’s friends found him kicking early in the morning before school. While he never vocalized how hard he was working or shared the number of field goals he was kicking daily (it was in the hundreds), his close friends knew.
“Daniel has a one-track mind but in a good way, in a sense that he’s focused on what he wants to be and doing whatever it takes to do that,” said Miller, who plays linebacker at Gardner-Webb. “He would never say anything or want recognition for perfecting his craft, but that’s what he would do. He knew what he wanted and he wanted to be the best, so that’s what he did.”
The Classical Academy head coach David Bervig thought about playing the 6-foot-4 Carlson at other positions — wide receiver, linebacker, tight end all seemed valid options — or attempting some trick plays. But Coughlin vetoed each of those. He wasn’t willing to risk Carlson’s kicking leg.
After his junior year in high school, Coughlin helped organize Carlson’s first trip to a kicking camp in Orlando, Fla.
Despite competing against juniors and seniors who had been attending camps for years, Carlson left the Kohl’s Kicking Academy Challenge with a No. 1 ranking. He started receiving interest from colleges. He decided to hang up his soccer cleats for good.
His feats on the field became more impressive. Prior to practices Carlson, Miller and teammates would joke around by placing the football at midfield to see if Carlson could make it. When he would, they’d back up farther.
“One time he made a 63-yard field goal before practice and we were all stunned,” Miller said. “That’s NFL stuff. We were 17 years old and didn’t really appreciate it for what it was, but in high school, that was huge. We were successful our senior year, but knowing that we had to get the ball across midfield and we were going to make a field goal, that was reassuring.”
As a senior, Carlson also worked with younger players, including his brother Anders (now the No. 1 overall kicker in the country and a 2017 Auburn commit). In an area which lacked lots of hometown football stars, Daniel Carlson was the first noted D-I football player.
“I saw how hard Daniel worked and I really look up to him,” Anders said. “It’s funny to see the difference now. It’s kind of a big deal — it’s a big deal for me. He kind of changed the reputation of football players in our area.”
Bervig felt like the elder Carlson was a once-in-a-lifetime kicker for a high school coach. He’s becoming the same type of player for Auburn coach Gus Malzahn.
It took a little while for Carlson to get going on the Plains. He was behind Cody Parkey, another talented kicker who left for the NFL after his senior season and made the Pro Bowl in 2014. As good as Carlson was, the freshman wasn’t automatic.
At the end of his first season as a starter, Carlson made a 51-yard field goal, setting an Outback Bowl record. But near the end of that game his luck changed.
He missed his next two kicks, including a potential game-tying attempt from 45 yards which bounced off the right upright. After the loss, Malzahn told Carlson he would have plenty more chances to win games. Malzahn was right.
In 2015 Carlson was one of three kickers in the FBS with four makes of 51-plus yards. He set an Auburn record for consecutive field goals made (16) and made 97-consecutive PAT kicks (fourth in Auburn history). The sophomore ranked fifth nationally in touchback percentage (71.0) and was named a second-team All-American and a unanimous first team All-SEC selection.
At the end of the year, Carlson was one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award, given to the best kicker in the country. When he didn’t win, he made it his mission to claim the award this season.
“I know a lot of people who aren’t even as successful as he’s been and they’re really arrogant,” Miller said. “He’s stayed very humble and grounded.”
Carlson has remained close with several hometown friends such as Miller. Though they don’t see each other outside of a couple of weeks of the year, whenever they get together, it’s as though nothing has changed. Carlson has the same relationship with Coughlin. Carlson sends thank-you texts to Coughlin for his help getting Carlson to this point.
“Of all of the things to be thinking about he’s thinking about how he got here and what he’s thankful for,” Coughlin said. “I’ve got three or four of the most memorable texts or voicemails that you could ever imagine. You expect an 18-22-year-old to be thinking me, me, me. He’s very grateful, very humble. And that’s also part of what makes him be able to come back after hitting the goalpost, too.”
A big step forward
Del Greco spent 17 years in the NFL. He’s examined kicks so much that he can deduce a lot by watching the trajectory and spin rate of the ball. He’s also spent a lot of time at Auburn games, admiring Carlson’s fundamentals.
Del Greco was at the LSU game when Carlson tied the school record, and tweeted congratulations to Carlson, including the hashtag next stop NFL.
— Al DelGreco (@delgreco3) September 27, 2016
“All of his kicks go through the goal post in about the same place, which is pretty close to the center,” Del Greco said. “That’s what the guys in the NFL are all about, those are the guys that last. There’s no question he has the ability and the leg to do that. To be able to share the record with somebody who’s been that successful, really makes me proud that my name is brought up in that category. To watch what’s ahead for him is yet to be determined, but I would be shocked if he’s not highly successful.”
College kickers get teased and taunted by teammates for not dealing with daily brutal physical contact and being absent from seasonal workouts, but Carlson’s teammates don’t doubt his work ethic, leadership or future.
He’s present for all offseason workouts through winter and summer months. He’s called a “superstar,” told he could “drafted right now,” and lifted into the air after his stellar performances.
Carlson deflects success and credits holder Tyler Stovall whenever possible. “Just for me, the amount of work he’s putting into holding, which a lot of people overlook, it’s extremely important,” Carlson said. “Who knows what I’d be doing without him.”
Even when Carlson is on the field and not kicking, he’s making plays. He finally convinced Malzahn to let him attempt a trick play, scoring his first-ever rushing touchdown in Week 2 against Arkansas State when Stovall flipped the ball over his shoulder to Carlson who sprinted into the end zone.
Could more exciting feats be on the way? Maybe an attempt at that 60-yard field goal Malzahn said he trusts Carlson can make.
“He’s a game changer. He’s a weapon,” Malzahn said. “There probably aren’t a whole lot of coaches who have that luxury. He’s a guy that is kicking just about everyone one in the end zone so the stress of covering kicks — we’ve played three top 20 teams that all had great returners back there — and he’s kicking the thing in the end zone and hitting people. Don’t try to catch his kicks.”
Barker said the way Carlson sees it, he was given a talent and an opportunity and he’s working to be the best he can be. Pressure doesn’t rattle him — no matter how far the kick or tense the situation.
“I think whether it’s with relationships or life or football, whenever you get so focused on one thing other things in your life fall to the wayside and you really can’t be successful in what you want to do,” Miller said. “Daniel really does a great job of balancing his friends and family and football. He still could have been a Division I kicker and not worked nearly as hard as he did, but because he works so hard that’s why he had games like he did this past Saturday. It just shows what he can do.”