Ryan Young/SEC Country
Florida freshman kicker Evan McPherson will aim to fill the void left by two-year standout Eddy Pineiro.

Florida kicker Evan McPherson trying to make his own name in replacing Gators great Eddy Pineiro

FORT PAYNE, Ala. — Evan McPherson and his family are passing around cellphones at the table, looking up the Fort Payne High School kicker’s best highlights — and there are plenty to go around.

There’s the 55-yard field goal in September that, according to the story, had fans on both sides cheering.

“Watch how far it goes past,” LaDon McPherson, Evan’s father, says. “It was probably going to be good from 72.”

And he’s probably right.

McPherson then finds footage of the 70-yarder he made on a practice field. He didn’t think it made it over the crossbar at first until they slowed the video down and rewatched it right afterward.

Meanwhile, his parents pull up the one that had everybody talking last fall, the 60-yard field goal against Brewer last October that stamped McPherson’s name in the state record books.

Officially, it tied for the second-longest field goal in Alabama High School Athletic Association history — behind Sage Ledbetter’s 61-yard kick in 2015 and matching Michael Proctor’s 60-yarder in 1991 — but both of those were on free kicks. Therefore, the AHSAA officially recognizes McPherson’s as the longest snap-and-hold field goal in state history, kicked off the ground without a tee, no less.

“No wind or anything like that,” LaDon McPherson says as the video plays.

“It was a crosswind,” Evan McPherson corrects.

Florida fans might want to peruse McPherson’s YouTube highlights, because as he joins the Gators this summer he’ll be looking to replace another strong-legged kicker known to create some buzz with a social media clip now and then.

The truth is, when McPherson committed to Florida in December, he wasn’t sure yet if Gators star kicker Eddy Pineiro would be moving on to the NFL or returning for another season. If he had to redshirt, he was prepared to do so, but if there was a chance to seize the job as a freshman, well, he was prepared for that as well.

Pineiro, of course, was a fan favorite and staked his claim as the greatest kicker in program history while finishing his two-year Gators career with a school-record 88.4 percent success rate on field goals. That included an NCAA Division I-leading 17 of 18 in 2017 before he indeed opted to turn pro, ultimately signing as an undrafted free agent with the Oakland Raiders.

McPherson knows Pineiro’s lore, knows what he’s walking into at Florida.

“I’m sure it will make it a little tougher, but it’s really motivation, I think,” he says. “Eddy misses one field goal last year. That makes it where [I have to] not miss any.”

No reasonable Florida fan will expect perfection, but yes, the bar has been set incredibly high.

McPherson has tested his mettle through the competitive kicking camps circuit the last few years, prevailing in pressurized settings to earn the No. 1 ranking among high school kickers.

“I’m sure it’s more nerve-racking with 100,000 people,” he acknowledges.

He also knows, again, that he’s replacing the most automatic kicker in Gators history, the one who could draw chants of “Eddy, Eddy, Eddy” from the fans in The Swamp for a routine extra point.

But Evan isn’t trying to be Eddy. Or anyone else, for that matter.

“I asked Evan, ‘Do you want to be the Daniel Carlson of Florida?’ ” LaDon McPherson says, referencing another SEC standout who starred a few hours down the road at Auburn. “He goes, ‘No, I want to be the Evan McPherson of Florida.’ ”

“He said, ‘Do you want to be the next Eddy Pineiro?’ ” his mother Amber McPherson adds. “He goes, ‘I want to be the first Evan.’ ”

The family business

McPherson used to be primarily a soccer player when he was younger. He’d stick with the sport through his junior year of high school, even scoring the game-winning goal to send Fort Payne to the 6A state championship as a freshman.

But along the way, his passion shifted.

His older brother, Logan McPherson, was a successful kicker and punter at Fort Payne and would go on to punt at Louisiana Tech from 2013-16.

“It’s younger brother watching older brother,” Amber McPherson explains proudly.

“Whenever I first started, I had a soccer goal in my yard. Played soccer every day,” Evan McPherson recalls. “So I found two metal poles, stuck them beside it  I didn’t use my soccer goal anymore. I kicked over it.”

The poles he found in the garage, intended to be part of a bike rack, but they’d get much more use in their new role.

Evan was entering the eighth grade when Logan moved on to college, and even though he wasn’t actually in high school yet, he wanted to be the one to fill his brother’s void. As the story goes, after some pestering from McPherson, then-Fort Payne coach Paul Ellis told him he’d let him try out during the team’s spring workouts late in the kicker’s seventh-grade year.

He earned his way onto the varsity and spent the next five years continuing the McPherson legacy. Coincidentally enough, his younger brother Alex served as his holder on field goals as an eighth-grader last year and will now look to take his turn in line.

“He’s got a great role model. His older brother encouraged him,” Amber McPherson says of Logan’s influence on Evan. “The last thing he said before he left was, ‘My job is to make you better than me.’ … And he broke almost all his records.”

“Which one did I not?” Evan retorts.

A quick family debate and a couple of laughs ensue before Amber adjusts her statement.

“OK, so then he broke all of his records. His brother was proud,” she says.

“Makes it hard for him,” Evan adds, turning to his younger brother. “He’s got to kick a field goal from the other side of the field.”

Logan McPherson’s longest field goal was a 57-yard kick in 2012 that is now tied for fifth longest in state history, and that was the top family mark before Evan’s 60-yard record-setter.

As for McPherson’s overall season stats last fall, he says he thinks he was 9 of 17 on field goals, but at least 4 of those attempts were from 57 yards or longer, as the family recalls. “Still, I should make them,” he says nonetheless.

While McPherson was making headlines in the state, he was also making a name for himself nationally while competing at the renowned Kohl’s football kicking camps. In December 2016, he placed first among all kickers in the 2018 class at a regional showcase camp to earn his invite to the National Underclassman Challenge camp in Orlando, Fla., the next month, where he took first in both field goals and kickoffs.

Then in July 2017, McPherson competed with the best kickers in his age group at a national competition in Wisconsin to determine who would earn a spot in the prestigious Under Armour All-America Game. That had been a goal of McPherson’s since he got serious about the craft, and it would come down to a head-to-head finale with Gabe Brkic (now at Oklahoma).

“Two kids out of 500 … his dream on the line, we were sitting up there [nervous]. You want it for your kid so bad because they worked so hard but, of course, everybody out there has,” Amber McPherson recalls.

Says Evan: “Honestly, I really wasn’t that nervous, I don’t know why.”

The first kicker to miss twice would lose. They started at 50 yards, and after McPherson made his first attempt, Brkic missed. The future member of the Sooners then kicked successfully from 55 yards, as did McPherson, before Brkic missed from 58 to end the competition.

McPherson always preferred to kick first in these moments, to set the tone and put the pressure on his competitor.

“My friends told me at these last camps, ‘Whenever Evan walks on the field, he means business,’ ” he recalls. “Which is really how you have [to be]. You can’t really be nervous about it.”

Florida incoming freshman Evan McPherson was ranked the nation’s No. 1 kicker in his class. (Zach Abolverdi/SEC Country)

The future

As an Under Armour All-America selection and the No. 1-ranked kicker in the class, everything was falling into place for McPherson.

He had committed to Mississippi State in April 2017 after coach Dan Mullen took a special interest in him, surprising him before the start of a junior day camp with a scholarship offer. The McPherson family spent plenty of time in Starkville, Miss., last fall, getting to know the campus, becoming friendly with Mullen’s wife Megan and others within the program. McPherson had developed a strong bond in particular with Bulldogs special teams adviser Chris Boniol, the former Dallas Cowboys kicker.

“We went to every home game. Every home game. We knew the campus, we knew where to park, we knew where to go, it was a ritual,” LaDon McPherson says.

Says Amber: “We were standing outside for the [pregame] Dawg Walk and just a fan turned and goes, ‘Are you Evan McPherson?’ So even the fans were already starting to know who he was.”

“I didn’t know everything could change,” McPherson says.

The family had talked to Mullen’s coordinator of recruiting operations Lee Begley after attending the final game of the 2017 regular season, and she let them know that the coach was planning a visit to Fort Payne soon.

But by the end of the weekend, Mullen was no longer the coach at Mississippi State, leaving to take over at Florida.

“I didn’t believe it,” McPherson says, reflecting back.

“We were at Zaxby’s eating lunch on Sunday after church when we heard that he was leaving. We were like, ‘What?’ ” LaDon says.

“I didn’t believe it,” Evan reiterates. “… I was upset.”

LaDon emailed Begley to try to get some clarity on the matter and the confusion or concern only mounted when he didn’t get a response. Then he saw Mullen’s Gators-chomping arrival at the Gainesville airport that Monday morning and noticed Begley trailing behind him.

“In a matter of 15 minutes, she called,” LaDon recalls.

The message was simple  the destination may be changing, but Mullen still wanted McPherson in his program.

Four days later, Mullen was in Fort Payne visiting with the McPherson family for several hours, dining at the local steakhouse and spending time at their home.

Sitting at the same restaurant months later in early May, Santa Fe steakhouse, the family reiterates how much that meant to them.

“How many head coaches are that engaged in a kicker? You know what I’m saying, he’s not a running back or quarterback. For Mullen to fly up here …” LaDon says.

“That’s a really big statement for me,” Evan adds.

It didn’t take long for McPherson to reciprocate by declaring his commitment to the Gators.

With Pineiro moving on, most expect McPherson will take over the job as a freshman, though fifth-year senior Jorge Powell will also compete with him this summer.

Sitting around the table in late May, sharing stories, watching YouTube videos and talking about the future, McPherson and his family reflect on everything it’s taken to get to this point, including the late audible called on his college choice.

“Sometimes we pinch ourselves, is this really real?” LaDon says.

It will be soon enough.

McPherson is asked what he thinks will be going through his mind on his first live field-goal attempt in The Swamp.

“He’s going to go do what he does,” Amber says.

“Maybe it will be a 55-yard field goal,” Evan offers. “What I’ll do, I’ll take my steps back, I’ll look at the uprights, pick a spot behind it and just focus on that spot. Catch a breath.”

Sure, he admits, there might be some nerves for that one, but they all agree his parents will probably be even more tense.

This is, after all, what McPherson has been chasing ever since he strapped those metal poles to the sides of his soccer net way back when. And now it’s here.

“I think it’s just crazy how I put in all the practice, the training, everything I’ve been through has come to this point … and it’s about to become reality,” he says. “I was hoping to get to this point. Now that I’m here, I expect to perform on a big stage. I’m really excited about it.”

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