LAKELAND, FLORIDA – If Joel McGrath kicks his way into the NFL, autograph seekers won’t need to hand him a pen to sign memorabilia. Chances are he’s carrying his special Sharpie.
It's not a question of vanity. McGrath, ranked among the nation's top high school kickers/punters, keeps the marker handy to inscribe his favorite bible verse on his arm prior to taking the field.
Phase 3 Kicking, based out of Maple Grove, Minnesota, utilizes sophisticated algorithms after collecting data from running competitive camps and ranks kickers in the country for the Class of 2023.
And Phase 3 isn’t alone in its seasoned opinion.
National Kicking Rankings (NKR), based out of Dothan, Alabama, lists McGrath as No. 2 overall kicker and punter in the country for 2023. NKR also ranks him tops in Florida in both categories.
“I would say he definitely has a chance to go to the NFL. He has become one of the best kicker-punter-combo guys,” said his personal kicking coach Tom Feely, whose son Jay Feely was an NFL kicker for 14 seasons.
“I would put (McGrath) in the top five of all the guys I have coached over the last 40 years. And I have put 16 guys in the NFL that were young kids when I started working with them.”
McGrath is 5-of-6 in field goals this season, including a career-best 47-yarder on the road against Ridge Community. He also averages 59.2 yards per kickoff – with a long of 68 – including 15 touchbacks in 18 attempts.
Chris Husby, who runs Phase 3 said whichever college program signs McGrath “is going to be real lucky and gets an A-plus guy,” and he competes really well in all-three areas of kicking.
“They are going to get a guy who has ice in his veins. He would be a guy I would have confidence in to make that clutch kick,” Husby said. “He has a very focused demeanor when he comes to training. Nothing seems to rattle him. You can’t tell if he is upset or not, so he can lock in when he is competing, and he has the talent to back it up.”
Husby said McGrath consistently either wins or finishes in the top three of every camp he’s overseen.
“I think (consistency) is just a huge asset for any college that wants to recruit him. It’s very rare you find a guy elite in all three areas, kickoffs, punting and field goals, and Joel is,” Husby said.
McGrath was a mere 5-foot-8, 115-pound, soaking-wet eighth-grader when his high school coach Kendrick Stewart spotted him playing kickball and invited to slap on some pads and give football a try.
“I thought he was crazy because I was always a soccer player and I didn’t think of myself as a football player,” said McGrath, now 17 and standing a muscular 5-11 and 165 pounds.
But McGrath suited up for spring practice and went through all the tough workouts and drills with the Storm during the scorching Florida spring heat. He hung tough, though he was practicing without a designated position.
However, when summer workouts began, something pulled McGrath back out onto the gridiron where he found his new passion – kicking footballs.
“They needed me to punt after my freshman year and I didn’t know how to do it. Punting takes a lot of technique and I didn’t have a lot of leg strength,” McGrath said. “I was always hesitant, lacked confidence just because I had never done it before.
“It was kind of challenging to get all the timing down when the ball is snapped to when the hold is down. So, I kind of found some middle ground. As soon as the ball is snapped, and I see my holder’s hands flash up, that is when I would start. That seemed to help my timing get better,” said McGrath, who barely booted the ball to the 20-yard line on kickoffs that first season.
McGrath found kicking instruction from his Bible teacher, Caleb Winter, who was a former kicker at Southeastern University.
“He helped with getting better ball contact so I wouldn’t hit it so much on my toe, and I would hit it on the hard spot on my foot,” said McGrath, who ditched soccer and went all in for football at the end of his sophomore year.
“I started realizing soccer wasn’t going to get me somewhere and the team I was on wasn’t the greatest. Football was getting better and better. I decided to take it full time and more seriously,” he said.
“When COVID came I started to focus on punting because I had time. I went to my first camp, did alright and that summer I went to a national camp in Indiana and won the punt competition at the end of my sophomore year. I put a lot of hours in but I didn’t expect to go there and beat everyone. I thought these people probably have been punting for a while.”
Also, at the end of his sophomore season, his father found Feely, who used to coach football and kickers at Tampa Jesuit for 20 years after coaching 15 seasons of high school football in Minnesota. They began training on a “beat-up field” at Greco Middle School in Temple Terrace.
“I found him to be a very disciplined student,” Feely said. “Whatever I taught him to do, it didn’t matter what it was, he did it to the nth degree. He was very much of a perfectionist to implement what I was teaching. To me, that was a great find for potential. It wasn’t that he had this great natural talent, but he was very disciplined about learning. That has never wavered. It’s paid off.”
Under Feely’s supervision, McGrath expanded his workout horizons to include the pool and joining the track team to run hurdles, which requires the same leg motion used during kickoffs. In time, McGrath’s kickoffs went from lackluster to very powerful.
“Hurdling helps me get much more explosive off the ball,” McGrath said. “He has a workout that I do in the pool. I just practice the form of kicks and try to kick to the top of the water. For kicking, it is like waste-under and for punting it is like chest-under. When it got easier, he had me get flippers to get more resistance.”
Feely immediately changed McGrath’s approach to the ball, going from the traditional take three steps back and two steps over to taking two steps back and two steps over for a faster approach to the ball.
“It made it easier to relax a little bit and have a little more time to see the ball being placed down so I would know what would be happening when I kicked it. Once I got to Coach Feely, he changed everything up,” McGrath said. “Punts was just learning how to punt. He is the one who taught me how to punt.”
McGrath also added a locker room ritual writing a Bible verse on his wrist before every game: “Whatever you do, do it heartily for the Lord and not do it for man.” – Colossians 3:23.
“I write it with a Sharpie I got from my science teacher,” said McGrath, who reads it as he prepares for every field goal in the game. “I go out there and do my practice swing, and as I am walking back, I look down at it and it gets me locked in for the field goal and I take a swing.”
McGrath, who holds a 4.2 GPA, plans to play college football, study kinesiology and become a chiropractor or physical therapist. He wants to play at Central Florida because they have the top kinesiology program in the state and it is close to home. He holds one offer from Grambling State, and he’s also dreaming of the NFL.
“If pro football was an option, I would take it,” he said.