Four years and five schools later, UMass punter Brian McDonald takes one more shot at Division I

Last modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
AMHERST — After an eight hour bus ride through over 500 miles of mostly cornfields, Brian McDonald averaged 41.8 yards per punt on four kicks doing his part to help Minnesota-Morris beat Iowa Wesleyan, 29-24.

Exactly 200 people watched in Mount Pleasant, Iowa, a game between two previously winless Division III teams that was about as far away from big-time college football as you can get in this country.

On Sept. 20, almost a year later, McDonald will likely take the field at State College, Pennsylvania, in front of a crowd expected to be more than 500 times larger when UMass travels to Penn State. In fact, if you added up the combined attendance of every college football game McDonald has ever punted in, it wouldn’t even be close to the crowd that will likely see him kick at Beaver Stadium (capacity 107,282).

After spending most of his career on college football’s back roads, McDonald is completing it in Division I. He won a camp-long battle to be the Minutemen’s starting punter and he couldn’t be more excited about it.

“I’m grateful to be back here for a chance to live out my dream. Being at my home state school with a chance to compete at the Division I level, I can’t ask for anything more,” said the Dedham native. “I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”

The path to a Division I starting job has been long and winding for McDonald, who has been at five schools in three divisions, playing two positions. He’s taken an awful lot of bus rides to games in places most of his friends back home have never heard of. He was even once ranked as the nation’s top JUCO punter by Prokicker.com despite never being enrolled in a junior college.

School hopscotch started in high school when he transferred from Xaverian to Westwood High School and eventually to Hebron Academy in Maine in hopes of landing a starting job playing quarterback and punter.

His leg offered a better shot at a college career so McDonald started his journey as a punter at UConn in the fall of 2010, but he was cut from the team before the season started. He transferred to Sacred Heart (FCS) in the spring of 2011, but didn’t stay. He attended some summer camps for prospective JUCO players, hence the Prokicker.com ranking, but instead enrolled at Division III Fitchburg State.

He played quarterback and punted for the Falcons in 2011 and 2012 before transferring again, this time to Minnesota-Morris, a small D-III school in the western part of the state not far from where Minnesota and the two Dakotas come together.

McDonald averaged 37.89 yards per punt in his one season in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference and earned a degree in sport management. But he never quite got past the disappointment at UConn so he took advantage of the NCAA’s rule that allows players who have graduated with eligibility remaining to transfer without sitting out. With Colter Johnson graduating and a new coaching staff coming in, UMass looked like a chance for another fresh start.

“It’s been a winding journey. I respect the journey that I took. Coming from Division III makes you respect every opportunity you get at the highest level,” McDonald said. “To finally get a chance at the end of my career means a lot to me. It’s my last shot so I’ve got to make it happen. That’s something you try not to think about. I just have to try to get better and try to be the best I can be so I can help the team.”

At the end of Tuesday’s practice, while most players had already left the field at McGuirk Stadium, special teams coach Ted Daisher noted that McDonald was still on the field honing his form.

“He’s worked real hard. Very diligent. He’s worked on his techniques each and every day. He’s a relentless worker and a good guy to be around,” Daisher said. “He’s traveled a little different path to be here, but he’s here and he’s doing a good job.”

McDonald was focused on the Minutemen’s season opener against Boston College (3 p.m. Saturday, at Gillette Stadium), but appreciated how far he’d come since that day at Iowa Wesleyan and was looking forward to Penn State.

“The bigger the stage the more I love it,” he said. “It’s something I’m looking forward to.”

Special teams spotlight

The rest of the special teams roster breaks down as follows:

Kicker — Junior Blake Lucas, who lost his job last season to then-senior Brendon Levengood, will handle placekicking and kickoffs after a solid spring and strong camp. True freshman Matthew Wylie would be next up should Lucas falter again.

Punter — Redshirt freshman Logan Laurent was neck and neck with McDonald for most of camp. He’ll be the back up and step in if McDonald falters.

Kick/Punt Returner — Junior Trey Dudley-Giles, who might be UMass’ best overall athlete, will handle returns. True freshman J.T. Blyden will join him on kick returns, while Bernard Davis is the backup punt returner.

Long snapper — Sophomore Nick Berus takes over from graduated starter Vance Barton.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage