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Jason Sanders’ rise to stardom: From high school soccer to the NFL’s elite

The Phinsider’s Justin Hier sits down with Brent Grablachoff, Sanders’ personal kicking coach, to learn more about how Sanders became the league’s best.

Kansas City Chiefs v Miami Dolphins Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Being a placekicker in today’s NFL is one of the most high-pressure jobs not just in football, but in all of sports. So how exactly does one go from kicking soccer balls in high school to nailing 50+-yard field goals with an entire NFL organization’s success on the line? I sat down Brent Grablachoff, Miami Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders’ personal kicking coach, to find out.

First, let’s learn a bit about the man who’s been so instrumental in Sanders’ rise to elite status. After competing as a collegiate athlete in his own right, Brent Grablachoff spent several years in marketing and sales before opening Kicking World, one of the nation’s foremost kicker and punter training organizations, to help prep prospective collegiate and professional athletes. After over a decade in the kicking business, Grablachoff has seen few as fit to become a star than Dolphins All-Pro Jason Sanders.

“In this first lesson, I was like ‘dang, this kid’s got a monster leg,’” Grablachoff noted. “He was very raw. He didn’t have the fundamentals of being a kicker yet, but in his junior year of high school, if he really got a hold of one, he probably could’ve hit a 60-yarder without knowing anything.” At the time, Sanders was just coming off two years of playing competitive high school soccer and was considering the possibility of playing soccer at the collegiate level. A family friend recognized Sanders’ potential as a kicker and sponsored lessons to help Sanders hone the craft. Grablachoff mentioned that Sanders’ history as a soccer player aided in his fast start in football. “I think it’s an advantage... [soccer players] are so much more adept at using their hips, their quads, their feet. It’s the lower body motor skills.”

After a couple of lessons with Grablachoff, it became clear that Sanders was developing a new passion. Kicking the pigskin was young Sanders’ new calling. Once he started, there was no stopping. “In his junior and senior year of high school, we would meet twice per month on a routine basis. [Already], he really loved kicking. I would have to remind him: ‘you know December and January, it’s ok to take a couple of weeks careful. Even though you’re passionate about kicking, you have to balance taking time off from going year-round,’” Grablachoff remarked.

Pretty soon, the idea of reaching the Division 1 level of NCAA Football seemed less like a distant dream and more like a distinct possibility. Sanders took over as the varsity kicker at Villa Park High School in his junior year, and he worked with Grablachoff to formulate a plan to work towards the Division 1 recruiting process. As a senior, the future Dolphin nailed a 51-yard boot that got the attention of recruiters, eventually leading to interest from the University of New Mexico’s former Head Coach, Bob Davie. “[Davie] called me to ask about Jason and I was all excited. A couple of minutes later, he called Jason to give him an offer,” Grablachoff recalled.

At New Mexico, Sanders proved enough to receive attention from NFL scouts. In four seasons, the Orange, California native made 111 of 112 extra point attempts (99.1%) and 25 of 35 field goal attempts (71.4%). While his field goal percentage wasn’t stellar by NFL standards, former Miami Dolphins special teams coordinator Darren Rizzi noticed Sanders’ massive leg and strong mechanics, leading to the team selecting Sanders in the seventh round of the 2018 NFL Draft.

In training camp, Sanders beat out fellow rookie Greg Joseph, an undrafted free agent out of FAU who went on to sign with the Cleveland Browns, for Miami’s lone kicker job. In his first season, Sanders immediately became a weapon for the team despite former head coach Adam Gase’s struggling offense. Sanders nailed 35 of 36 extra points (97.2%) and 18 of 20 field goals (90.0%), including a long of 50 yards. Grablachoff recalled how fans were forced to learn Sanders’ name for all the right reasons in that rookie season when the Dolphins emerged victorious in an overtime thriller against the Chicago Bears in mid-October. “Jason had a game winner versus the Bears, and that’s the Windy City. He hits such a pure ball that it just pierces right through the wind.”

Following a strong rookie season in which he was named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie Team, Sanders struggled during his sophomore season. He hit on 23 of 30 field goals (76.7%) and just 8 of 14 field goals (57%) from beyond 40 yards, but a rebound was around the corner. “Without a doubt, Jason is the most mentally stable kicker I’ve ever coached,” Grablachoff explained. “He doesn’t get up, he doesn’t get down… On a scale of one to ten, he’s a constant five. If he makes a kick he doesn’t go to an eight. If he misses he doesn’t go to a three.”

How does Sanders achieve such a state of mental equilibrium? Grablachoff said that it all starts with Sanders’ routine. “It builds your confidence when you have a process to follow. I think that’s one downfall of a lot of good kickers that could be great. They don’t have as definitive a program that they replicate. Jason is just robotic to the point where every day is the same.”

Sanders came out roaring in year three. He knocked through 22 straight field goals to start the season, breaking a Miami Dolphins franchise record for consecutive successful kicks (19) that was previously held by Olindo Mare. Sanders was named AFC Special Teams Player of the Month in both October and November of 2020 and was the last perfect kicker standing late in the season. His late-game heroics continued into his third season when he nailed a game-winner against the Las Vegas Raiders in Week 16 following Ryan Fitzpatrick’s now-famous no-look pass to Mack Hollins with the final seconds waning.

On how Sanders was able to make such a leap and have sustained success at the NFL level, Grablachoff pointed not only to Sanders’ own attributes, but also his supporting cast. “When you’ve got Matt Haack, who’s been unbelievable every single hold there, that’s a big part, as well as the LSU long snapper (Blake Ferguson) they snagged this year. [John] Denney was awesome too… It’s been a perfect gel, so hopefully they re-sign Matt too because it’s been a perfect operation.”

Most assume NFL kickers have the whole play down to muscle memory and tune out the rest, so just how important is a kicker’s comfort level with his punter and long snapper? Grablachoff said that the significance of the “rest” can’t be overstated. “The gel factor was the biggest difference for him. The snap, the hold, the trust… His mechanics are locked in. If he puts the ball down with a tripod holder, he can probably kick it from 40-yards 50 times in a row without missing within a variance of two to three feet, but you have to have the rest there between the snapping, blocking, and holding.”

In his third year, everything came together for Sanders at just the right time, and he was rewarded as the top kicker in the NFL with Associated Press All-Pro recognition. So what’s next for a kicker enjoying such a meteoric rise? Grablachoff says it’s still back to the basics. Practice, practice, rest, and more practice, though with a bit of a spin in this COVID-19-altered environment we’re living in. “We try to maximize the virtual stuff. This past offseason, we were slated to link up but had to cancel due to travel restrictions because of Coronavirus… in lieu of that he’ll go and kick out on the field and I’ll get different video angles, slo-mo, and specific drills… and we’ll work on it virtually.”

Grablachoff explained what a typical practice day for Sanders looks like. “100 [kicks] is probably the most common number people would guess, but believe it or not, Jason probably only kicks about 40 balls a day. That’s not counting light drills… He’ll probably do 20 of one drill, 10 of the hit-the-upright drill, 5 PATs, move 5 yards back, and then 50s or 60s.”

COVID protocols permitting, Sanders also likes to spend some time each offseason giving back to aspiring athletes. He routinely attends Kicking World camps and volunteers as a guest mentor to up-and-coming kickers and punters.

Heading into his fourth season and a contract year, Sanders is set to be paid among the league’s best if he can continue his current run of success. Grablachoff didn’t hold back in his lofty praise for the California kid. “I don’t know what he’s going to get, but he should be on the same pay grade as a [Justin] Tucker or a Harrison Butker. He’s right up there in the top-3, if not the top.” Given his productivity, it’s hard to deny that Sanders has earned a contract in that top tier. Justin Tucker is currently the league’s highest paid leg at $5 million per year. Butker is seventh at $4.055 million per year. Per Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins have interest in signing Sanders to an extension in the near future.

Regardless of whether the Dolphins award Sanders with a deal this offseason, it’s clear that his contributions, and by proxy, those of Grablachoff, will be vital to Miami’s success going forward. As Sanders knows well, much like in soccer, a perfect kick can be the difference between elation and utter heartbreak in a game’s final moments. Luckily for Dolphins fans, Sanders decided to trade in the soccer pitch for the gridiron, and it looks like he’s here to stay.

This story was written by Justin Hier. For more from Justin, follow him on Twitter @HierJustin.