Titans football alum Jonny Messina is a redshirt freshman placekicker for the Division-I Stetson Hatters in DeLand.
DeLAND Like so many other true freshmen, Jonny Messina spent his first season as a college football player redshirting.
The Olympia Titans alum arrived at DeLand’s Stetson University last summer to play for the Hatters — who compete at the Division I FCS level — knowing he would be behind the then-senior kicker on the depth charter.
But, redshirting as a kicker can be a different than redshirting at other positions, where there is more depth. And so Messina still dressed for each home game and even traveled for one road game, knowing if the kicker ahead of him should go down — or stink up the place — the coach may call his number.
A year later, as the first-string placekicker for the Hatters (2-5), Messina said that experience proved helpful in preparing for the responsibility placed on him now.
“I got a sense of the environment that I’d be kicking in and the feel of traveling,” Messina recalled. “I got a feel for what it would be like.”
In part because of Stetson’s struggles on offense this fall, Messina already has become an important part of the Hatters’ scoring arsenal. The former Titan has been called on to kick a field goal 11 times in seven games, making six (two were blocked). Paired with a perfect 13-for-13 extra points, Messina’s 31 points of total offense account for nearly one-third of the team’s scoring output.
A road game against Valparaiso has been the highlight so far, with Messina connecting on three field goals in that one outing.
“I’m thankful to the coaches for giving me the opportunities to go out there — they have trust in me to make the field goals,” Messina said. “I’ve got to make the most of that opportunity.”
Although the mechanics of kicking don’t change significantly from the high-school level to college, the surrounding factors certainly do. Opposing defenses are faster and stronger, increasing the threat of a kick being blocked and forcing a kicker to be more conscious of a kick’s height off the foot.
Placement on kickoffs is even more specific than it is in high school, and should a returner break through the first few defenders, Messina — who stands 5-foot-8 — knows he has to try to tackle an athlete that is bigger, faster and stronger than anyone he encountered on Friday nights.
In fact, the most nervous Messina felt all season was during the season-opener against Sacred Heart — his own college debut — but it wasn’t the field goals he was most anxious about.
“I was kicking the opening kickoff, and so the nerves were definitely running,” he said. “You’ve just got to trust in your fundamentals and your technique.”
The kickoffs went fine that day, as did his first collegiate field goal attempt — a made 36-yarder.
Beyond game day, the former Titan is majoring in health sciences and hopes to become a physician’s assistant or a physical therapist. As a private institution, Stetson’s academics can be rigorous, and Messina said that balancing practices, lifting and a full course load comes down to preparation.
“You’ve got to develop time-management skills,” Messina said.
Three seasons ago, in 2015, Messina and his teammates at Olympia bounced back from consecutive losing seasons to go 7-4 in head coach Kyle Hayes’ first season on campus. For Messina, who kicked a career-long 49-yard field goal that fall, it was nice to know he had helped start something in his senior year. The next fall, the Titans returned to the playoffs.
The Olympia alum is encountering something different, and yet similar, at Stetson.
The university brought back its football program, dormant for decades, just four years ago. And so, however this season and the three after it go, Messina knows he is a part of building something.
“It’s exciting to know that we’re laying the foundation for the future of the program,” Messina said.
The Hatters lost their first five games this season, a slump that can be rough even for a program that is still finding its identity. They won the last two, though — in games against Brown University and Davidson University — and Messina said the energy and enthusiasm in the locker room are peaking.
“We’re hyped,” he said. “We’re ready to go now.”