One moment Hendrix Brakefield is a walk-on punter at Western Kentucky. The next second, he makes his college debut, standing in front of 85,555 football-crazed Nebraska Cornhusker fans at historic Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb.
That is how the 2010 season began for Brakefield and it didn’t slow down from there.
“You see college football on TV and it is nothing like it is in real life,” he said. “It is way more intense, way more mind-blowing, especially some of the big-time stadiums we were in. It was a little bit of a shock but as the season went on I kind of got into a rhythm.”
Brakefield plans to draw from those experiences when he takes the field in his hometown on Thursday.
Western Kentucky and the University of Kentucky will kick off college football early, playing in the 2011 College Colors Kickoff at 8:15 p.m. (ESPNU) at LP Field.
After Brakefield helped Hillsboro High to a Class 4A state championship as a senior in 2008, he received some interest from a couple Division II football programs but instead decided to attend Western Kentucky. Former Hillsboro coach Scott Blade wanted to make sure Brakefield’s talent didn’t go to waste and he set up a walk-on tryout at WKU.
He made the team as a redshirt-freshman in 2010 and expected to back up Casey Tinius, who also serves as the placekicker. Tinius was limited by a groin injury, though, and Brakefield was thrust into the starting role.
Though the surroundings might have been daunting, Brakefield’s results didn’t show it. He played in all 12 games and averaged 40.5 yards a punt, which ranked fifth in the Sun Belt Conference. He also had eight punts travel more than 50 yards, including two over the 60-yard mark.
Statistics, he said, can be misleading.
“If I kick a really, really crappy ball where the guy can’t even catch it and it rolls 60 yards, then I have a 60-yard punt. So on paper that looks great,” Brakefield said. “Honestly, the entire year is almost a blur. I don’t remember a single punt. From watching film last year and the overall memory I have of it, I was a little disappointed in a lot of them. I wish I could have hit them a better but sometimes that works. Sometimes you get a 60-yarder from a 20-yard kick.”
Determined to increase his hang time, Brakefield hit the weight room and bulked up to 226 pounds. The emphasis on strength and conditioning spread throughout the team, he said. The Hilltoppers are trying to rebound from a 1-11 season, this following a 0-12 record in 2009.
“It is like we all know ahead of time that we are going to do well,” Brakefield said. “Our team has done everything we can to get as good as we possibly can. ... There is no doubt that we are going to be better no matter what the score is.”
The Hilltoppers could start the turnaround on Thursday or at least give Kentucky a better fight than last year. The Wildcats rolled to a 63-28 victory in Lexington.
The nine WKU players from Tennessee are hoping to give their families something to cheer about as well. Three starting offensive linemen — center Sean Conway (Father Ryan), right guard Adam Smith (Blackman High) and right tackle Seth White (Donelson Christian Academy) — hail from the area.
“We are going to have a lot of support,” said Brakefield, who is roommates with Conway and backup defensive end Cole Tischer (Brentwood High). “We just can’t wait. Everybody is pumped.”
Brakefield, who is also the holder for field goals and extra points, could use this season as a springboard into something more. He is still a walk-on. He wants to earn a scholarship but said he would let the coaches worry about those decisions.
For now, he is focused on the season ahead and pulling from last year’s experiences — good and bad.
“Having played a season and having a season under my belt, regardless of how nervous I was or how amazed I was at the college athletic ability of all these kids, it just gave me a chance to get my feet wet,” he said. “So now, this past offseason, it has been a lot more about preparing to go out there and do my very, very best.”