Pressley Harvin III has had a fairly singular football career. Looking at him, you'd think he plays linebacker, but the former Sumter High School star is in fact a punter.
Last week, Harvin did something that has never been done before, as he was the first Black player to win the Ray Guy Award as the nation's top punter. However, he's always been one of a kind dating back to his high school days.
When Harvin was at Sumter, he worked to become one of the best punters in the country. He was consistently ranked either first or second, depending on which recruiting site you looked at, and colleges noticed. Going through the recruiting process as a punter is different than other positions and Harvin learned that firsthand.
"For specialists, it's a little bit different because you normally have a kicking coach or someone that helps promote you, as well as going to a lot of kicking camps," Harvin said. "It's a lot of stuff that high school didn't really provide. Really the recruiting process was OK. I was recruited locally, South Carolina and Clemson, but you don't really get the exposure until you go to college kicking camps."
That recruiting process was challenging for Harvin. Now at 6 feet, 255 pounds, he constantly had to tell college coaches that he was in fact a punter and not a linebacker. While those constant questions were frustrating, Harvin did find some satisfaction in the reactions he got when those coaches finally saw him kick.
"I've always had coaches second-guess and be like, 'Are you a punter for real and nothing else?' Multiple times throughout that entire recruiting process, they thought I played linebacker or something and I had to explain to them I'm a punter," Harvin said. "Having coaches second-guess it is always kind of funny sometimes, especially when you tell them and they give you that look like, 'Are you sure you're a punter, because I could see you playing something else?' Then they turn the tape on and they look at the tape. Especially in the recruiting process, it opened a lot of coaches' eyes."
After going to a kicking camp at Georgia Tech, everything changed. Harvin was offered a scholarship and he committed the spring of his junior year. Being offered a scholarship is a rare occurrence for a punter. In most cases, placekickers and punters are preferred walk-ons who have the chance to earn a scholarship down the line. While that scholarship could've led to intense pressure as Harvin started as a freshman, he saw it as a confidence boost.
"I don't think there was pressure. I think it was more of a confidence thing for me to be honest," Harvin said. "By the time my freshman season came, it was kind of a lot of pressure when I first started because I'm only a freshman and usually, especially as a specialist, you go through the learning process with the upperclassmen in front of you, but the one that was here left as soon as I came in because it was his senior year. It was a lot of pressure without having a full-time kicking coach with me all the time, but it was definitely something that helped me along the way, teaching me how to coach myself."
Self-coaching is crucial for specialists in high school and college. Most teams, especially in high school, don't have someone on staff that's focused on coaching kickers or punters. Harvin has a personal kicking coach, Anthony Giugliano of Kohl's Kicking, but the two primarily work together in the offseason. During the season, Harvin had to learn how to find his mistakes and correct them himself.
"It's tough to be on yourself, you've got to really be your own coach when the season starts because, especially at the high school level, a lot of coaches don't really know anything about kicking in general anyways," Harvin said. "You really get the training in the offseason and then you start coaching yourself during the season. You can take film and I was able to send that to him throughout the season to help out, but a lot of guys, when they do something wrong, they've got a position coach that's right there to help them fix it on the spot. You've kinda got to be your own coach and know how to punt enough to figure stuff out and see what's wrong all on your own."
Harvin turned out to be pretty good at coaching himself. As a freshman, he was third team All-Atlantic Coast Conference. He made the jump up to second team as a sophomore, before a shocking junior season. Despite still kicking at a high level, Harvin didn't receive any of the honors he earned in his first two seasons. That rubbed him the wrong way.
"It was rough to be honest," Harvin said. "We went 3-9 that year, I had 80 punts and I was the only punter that actually punted in practice and we punted every day, so I was definitely tired. At the end of the year, when all the lists came out and I didn't get any recognition at all, it made me upset because I put so much into it from the prior two years and continuing to build.
"In the offseason before that season, I felt like I was the best I'd ever been and at the end of it to look back and not get any recognition at all, it was definitely motivation for me to use for this last season and I definitely used that to my full potential."
The snub gave Harvin tunnel vision. He spent his offseason putting in even more work and he was excited to rejoin the team in the spring and continue to improve. Then COVID-19 hit.
" When stuff started to shut down, it was kind of like a slap in the face because we had an opportunity to get better and stuff, and now we're going to have to be home for God knows how long because the talk early on was that there was going to be no season," Harvin said. "It took a turn for the worst at the beginning, I stayed here in Atlanta the whole time. I didn't go home because I have my own apartment, but I also had an internship at the same time that spring.
"I had just gotten back into football, workouts were finally over and I was excited for spring football and then next thing you know I can't go anywhere, I have to stay home. I have to work my internship from home too. It got boring.
Harvin was suddenly left without most of his resources to improve this spring. He couldn't get into the gym and practice spaces were scarce, but he refused to back down from the challenge.
"I did not have access to a weight room for I think four to five months. I had to figure something out, so our strength staff sent resistance bands of different sizes and stuff to us, and that was really the only thing I used for two or three months or so. It definitely helped, but it wasn't the same as being in the weight room," Harvin said. "Trying to find somewhere to kick was definitely the hardest thing to do, because a lot of people weren't having people on any type of field for no reason. Because I stayed really close to campus, we have a campus recreational center and I think that field is like three soccer fields in one in length and they still had to be socially distanced, but I was able to go there and get a majority of my offseason workout in punting-wise. Because there wasn't a lot of people going out and all, I actually had the space to do it, but not for too long because shortly after that, they told us we could phase to get back to school."
Looking back at the spring, Harvin said his drive to overcome the challenges of COVID fueled his impressive senior season. It taught him the importance of perseverance, an important lesson for anyone with NFL dreams.
"I told myself from the beginning when all of this started happening that this is the year that I want to use to get to the next level and one thing that I had to do was work harder than the person that was going to be beside me," Harvin said. "It taught me mental toughness to a different level. This year by far has taught me, every coach and everyone that's on the team, it taught everyone to be on a mental toughness level that you haven't really met before because one minute you're good and the next it's gone. We definitely took advantage of it and used it as fire. I don't care if I only play three games this year, if I put all I had worked for over the last four years into it, I would've been OK with it.
"If you can get through 2020, to be honest, you can get through just about anything."
Then came the actual season, where all of Harvin's work paid off in spades. He led the nation in gross punting average with an even 48.0 yards on 45 punts. Along with leading the nation in punting, Harvin also set an Atlantic Coast Conference record for punting average in one season. Harvin had 22 of his 45 punts travel 50 yards or more with a long of 70. He only had three touchbacks and just seven punts returned. Opponents made 21 fair catches on his punts and 18 of the punts were downed inside the opposition's 20-yard line.
That spectacular season culminated with the Ray Guy Award. Harvin takes pride in being the first Black player to win the award, especially in 2020.
"Being able to win the Ray Guy Award is already a huge accolade, but to also be the first one to do it as an African-American specialist and doing it throughout 2020," Harvin said. "I hope it shows guys at the next level (National Football League) that no matter what circumstances you put me under, I'm going to work as hard as I can."
Winning the Ray Guy Award was the perfect way to cap off a college career, but Harvin decided before the award was announced last week that he would be leaving Georgia Tech. The accolades are great, but he already knew he accomplished everything he needed to with the Yellow Jackets.
"I knew I was in contention for the Ray Guy, but I told myself even if I don't win it, even if I didn't have any accolades, I knew I left everything on the table in those last couple of games to close out the race for the Ray Guy," Harvin said. "I told myself, no matter what, I left everything that I could and I definitely did. To have the choice that I made and start seeing things align for me, especially after the last couple of weeks and the last couple of days, I can truly say I made the right decision and I'll be able to say that again when the (NFL) draft comes."
Now Harvin is in the early stages of preparing for the draft. He's still finishing up his final semester at Georgia Tech, but he scheduled his 10 remaining credit hours to be morning classes so he could "devote from 12:00 to 12:00 to football." Unfortunately, a lot of Harvin's pre-draft process is still up in the air. He was invited to the NFL Players Association Bowl, but they weren't able to play a game. It was instead a virtual event hosted this week that gave draft prospects a chance to interact with NFL coaches and players.
The biggest question mark is the NFL Combine. Last spring, the combine was one of the last major events before the shutdown and the league is still trying to figure out the best way to host it this year. Whatever happens with the combine, Harvin said he'll be ready whenever NFL teams ask him to showcase his talents.
"I'm kind of looking forward to what teams are saying, but I'd rather sit behind the scenes and continue to work like I've already been doing and when conversations happen and the time comes, it'll be a completely different Pressley and it's a better Pressley than the last time I played a game," Harvin said. "I'm just looking forward to just putting my head down, doing the work, staying below the radar and when the time comes to showcase my talents for the next level, whether it be at pro days or a specialist camp that's put on by NFL scouts. Whenever my number is called, I'm going to be ready for it."
While Havin is excited to experience whatever the next few months has to offer, the thing he's looking forward to the most is rather simple.
"The biggest thing I'm looking forward to is just being able to make my parents proud," Harvin said. "My parents are definitely proud of me because of all the accolades and the Ray Guy this year, but being able to finally get to that end goal from when I first started playing football of being able to get picked up and go to the league, that's definitely something I'm looking forward to."
Harvin also appreciates the support the Sumter community has given him throughout his career. While he wasn't born in Sumter, the city and high school helped mold him into the person he is today.
"I've looked back at it and I've always had Sumter in my corner," Harvin said. "Being not actually from Sumter, but growing up in the Sumter community and being able to play football that whole time, I look back five or six years after I started playing at Sumter High, you look back at it and realize Sumter really does have a big place in my heart.
"All of the coaches, all the guys that I played with, a good couple of them are still really, really close friends with me and just being able to show people that Sumter really has talent, you just have to look a little more for it. I'm just really glad I can say Sumter, South Carolina, is somewhere I played ball and made me who I am today."
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