Many times, kickers go unnoticed except by coaches, college scouts and parents.
These days, though, it’s hard not to notice Hillsboro’s Joseph Occhipinti, who may be the area’s best kicker/punter.
Improving year by year, Occhipinti, a 6-foot-2, 190-pound senior, is having his best season for the Burros who are 4-2 heading into a Friday region game at Independence that starts the home stretch of the season.
So far, Occhipinti has:
• Booted five field goals in seven attempts with a long of 36 yards. He barely missed a 50-yard attempt in Week 2 against Franklin Road Academy, a kick plenty long enough but just wide left.
• Kicked 17-of-19 extra points. One the misses was blocked and on the other Occhipinti slipped on the turf last Friday at Whites Creek before he even kicked it.
• Boomed 97 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks, with five sailing through the uprights and, as he said jokingly, he wouldn’t lobby the rules committee to count those kickoffs as three point field goals. Five more went completely out of the end zone. He had 92 percent for touchbacks last year.
• Punted for a Nashville best 47 yards per kick, up from a 42-yard average last year, with several downed inside the 10.
Kicking came to him naturally … and early.
“I started playing football when my friends got me interested in playing for the 5-6 grade Raiders [based out of J.T. Moore Middle School]. I wasn’t very physical, so I tried out being the kicker and punter where I found out I had some success,’’ he said before practice earlier this week. “Then I wound up kicking off and punting for J.T. Moore in 7-8 grade and did pretty well.”
He arrived at Hillsboro as a freshman in 2009, just after the school’s state championship year when the Burros had two excellent specialists in seniors Hendrix Brakefield, the punter, and Jacob Noe, who kicked the game-winning field goal in a stunning 10-7 victory over Maryville in the state championship game.
His unusual last name, he says, is of Sicilian decent, meaning “Pinched Eyes.”
As his talents for kicking began to evolve, Occhipinti started to specialize.
In the summer of 2010, he went to a kicking camp at MBA conducted by former Southern Miss and NFL All-Pro Ray Guy. The past summer he went to the Kohls Kicking Camp in Wisconsin. He is also currently getting coaching from former Titans punter Craig Hentrich.
“I made the most improvement between my sophomore and junior years,” he said. “I found out it’s a process. As my dad says, it’s not just a matter of using your foot, you also use several parts of your body where it all works together.”
The extra work has paid off.
Recently, Occhipinti announced he would sign with Western Kentucky, which won out over Bethel and Cincinnati. Vanderbilt also had shown initial interest.
“When we played East Nashville game [Sept. 7], Bethel offered me [a scholarship] right after the game. Later that night, Western called and offered me a full ride. On one night I had two offers. It was amazing.
“I committed to Western the following Monday, Sept. 10. I knew I wanted to stay close to home, and Western was my best bet. Hendrix redshirted there and will be a senior, so I’m excited I’ll be able to spend one season with him.”
Occhipinti plans to major in communication.
At Hillsboro, he is an International Baccalaureate Student and an IB Diploma candidate.
First-year coach Craig Clayton minces no words when talking about Occhipinti.
“Joseph is our best player,” Clayton said succinctly. “He shifts the field for us with his punts. We are constantly gaining a big advantage in field position on exchange of punts. And his field goals are important, especially in a defensive game like we had last week [against Whites Creek where he kicked two] where points are at a premium.
“Placekickers can be kind of crazy, wacky guys, but he’s not like that. He’s a very hard worker, very conscientious. He’s so valuable to us whether it’s giving us field position, getting points for us or kicking the ball out of the end zone.”
Once, in his sophomore season, Occhipinti kicked a game winning field goal.
“It was homecoming against Cane Ridge, and I kicked it with about 40 seconds to go, and we won [17-14],” he said. “It was a chip shot, about 28 yards. I remember my holder Dillon Valentine told me it’s just like in practice, but nothing is easy when the game is on the line. It was fun getting all the bear hugs on the sidelines.
“Dillon, along with my snapper Trevor Bates, and I are all seniors, and they’ve been great with execution. We’ve been doing this since we were sophomores.”
Especially exciting for Occhipinti is the site of Western’s first two games next season. The Hilltoppers open next Aug. 29 at the Titans’ LP field against Kentucky. Their second game is Sept. 7 in Knoxville against Tennessee.
“The fact I can play in an NFL Stadium for the first time in my hometown before my friends my very first college game, then play at a stadium the next game before 104, 000 people at UT where my sister [Emilia] went to, I could never have imagined that, not in a million years,” he said.
But first things first. Occhipinti is acutely aware that Hillsboro hasn’t made the playoffs since his freshman year.
“I’m still playing for Hillsboro High, and I’m going to be the best kicker I can possibly be and help my team as best I can to assure that we get back to playoffs,” he said.
The Burros would certainly get a kick out of that.
Battle Ground Academy at McCallie
Brentwood Academy at Baylor
Cane Ridge at Glencliff
Centennial at Brentwood High
East Nashville at Christ Presbyterian Academy
Ensworth at Pope John Paul II
Ezell-Harding at Knox Webb
Father Ryan at Montgomery Bell Academy
Franklin Road Academy at Donelson Christian Academy
Goodpasture at White House
Hendersonville at Beech
Hillsboro at Independence
Hillwood at Overton
Hunters Lane at McGavock
Lipscomb Academy at Whites Creek
Mt. Juliet at Gallatin
Pearl-Cohn at Maplewood
Ravenwood at Franklin