James Langford might be the most highly touted high-school signee Tim Walsh has brought to San Luis Obispo in his two recruiting seasons as Cal Poly head football coach.
But Langford, a five-star kicker ranked as one of the top 25 seniors in the country by the foremost kicking service, almost never picked up football.
At the start, trying out for his Foothill High junior varsity team was just something to do the day after a 10th-grade sleepover.
If Langford didn’t have that ride home from a friend’s house in 2007 — or maybe if injuries hadn’t derailed a budding national-level track and field career — the strong-legged soccer star might not have even tagged along to the football field.
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“That’s a good question,” said Langford, who was one of 12 high school seniors to sign a National Letter of Intent with Cal Poly on Wednesday. “I don’t know if I ever would have gone out by myself.”
Walsh certainly wouldn’t have been cooing over a recruiting coup that doesn’t often happen in the Football Championship Subdivision: Choosing the Mustangs over the Pac-10.
“We want to have this guy, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to get this guy and not lose him to anther school,” Walsh said about Langford at the Cal Poly signing day news conference. “I know several Pac-10 schools that wanted to have him on their roster.”
Stanford asked Langford to walk on. So did Oregon State. San Diego State and San Jose State were floating similar offers. Walsh made Langford enough of a priority to offer him a scholarship and now has his hands on a kicker who already has a clutch overtime-forcing 57-yard field goal on his resume. That deep one, Langford’s career long, came in the Holiday Classic all-star game at Grant High in Sacramento in December. Foothill coach John Mannion was not there to see it, but word quickly spread back to Pleasanton.
“It was the day after Christmas,” Mannion said, “and I know one of the guys that I coached against called me and just said, ‘Holy crap.’ I mean, he’s got it in him. You can’t fake a 57-yard field goal.”
That was less than two months after Langford stepped off the sideline to nail a 48-yarder as time expired in the first half of a regular season game against Monte Vista. That kick was televised on ESPNU.
“James just went out and nailed it right through the uprights, down the middle,” said Foothill quarterback Sean Mannion, who signed with Oregon State this week, “and that was impressive. He just ran out there like it was nothing.”
Not to be outdone by his placekicking, 86 percent of Langford’s kickoffs his senior season landed for touchbacks, and the money bet often was whether or not hit his kickoff would go through the uprights.
Langford got his reputation for booming balls as a youth soccer player growing up. Opponents learned to stand back when he took set kicks, and, at 13, Langford knocked the wind out of one defender in the wall on a free kick from 25 yards out.
“He was on the ground for a while,” Langford said. “I don’t think he got in the wall the next time.”
Surprisingly enough, however, it might have been Langford’s running career that turned him into the kicker he is today — one ranked 21st in the country by Chris Sailer, a kicking instructor who’s rankings are closely followed by college football coaches across the country. Sailer is also a former UCLA kicker.
As a 12-year old in 2004, Langford said he placed in the top 10 in the 800-, 1,500- and 3,000-meter races at the national Junior Olympics in Eugene, Ore., and did the same at an AAU national meet in Iowa a few days later.
Osgood-Schlatters disease hit the 6-foot-3 Langford as he was starting his growth spurt in middle school, and a stress fracture kept him from competing in track and soccer his freshman year at Foothill, the same school that produced current Cal Poly players Tony Smith, Johnny Millard and Stash McGuinness. The leg conditions might have ended his track career, but he learned two important things from running: How to focus on training as an individual and how to handle pressure situations.
Working with a couple of coaches the past two seasons, the relative football novice took a track style mindset to improving his accuracy and kicking mechanics away from team practices.
Competing as an individual on national stages also conditioned Langford’s nerves for a job where all eyes in a packed college football stadium can be on you at once. Cal Poly followers have certainly seen their share of games won and lost by placekicking in recent years.
“When you can go and compete at the national level in a one-on-one sport like that,” Langford said, referring to his success in the Junior Olympics, “you can compete with nerves pretty well.”
Langford may have plenty of opportunities to do just that when he arrives at Cal Poly, even though the Mustangs have two senior kickers returning this season: Last year’s placekicker Chris Pinto and three-year kickoff specialist Jake West.
Langford will have the chance to take the job from both as a freshman.
“As a kicker, as far as getting to the next level, you know what you need to do for four years?” Walsh said. “Kick. If you don’t kick, you don’t have an opportunity to play for the 49ers, the Raiders or whoever, and we’re saying by bringing him in, ‘You’re going to kick.’ ”