As one of just two Louisiana-bred players taking part in the Saints rookie minicamp this weekend, Alex Kjellsten instantly felt the allure of being inside the locker room of his favorite team growing up.
No matter that the makeshift nature of his small locker, shared with another tryout teammate and only slightly bigger than a kindergartener’s cubby hole, screamed 'temporary' while he could see the aura of Drew Brees’ meticulously organized locker out of the corner of his eye.
None of that amounted to the pressure the kicker and punter felt last week in Chicago.
“It’s crazy, cause last week I was with the Bears, where it seemed like the whole camp was about finding a kicker, and now here, they have two great specialists,” he said. “But I’m still trying to make an impression.”
Kjellsten’s roundabout journey to an NFL tryout began with his successful high school career at St. Louis Catholic in Lake Charles, where he was all-state both as a kicker and punter, finishing with a 43.2-yard average per punt and knocking down all 17 of his extra-point attempts.
He attended LSU as a freshman but redshirted before leaving to play at McNeese State for one season. After two years back at LSU but not playing football, the kicker returned to McNeese for junior and senior seasons in which he became a star. He led the country as a senior with a 43.8-yard average, including a school-record-tying 81-yard punt.
The numbers were strong, but just how many teams were going to show up for an FCS kicker’s Pro Day?
Two — his childhood rooting interest, and the NFL team with the most dramatized kicker search in the league.
“It felt like a chip on our shoulder to begin with,” he said. “So just to have an opportunity like this means a lot.
“The real challenge is putting that all to the side and realizing there’s a job to win here, and I’ve been very focused. It’s been a great experience so far.”
The Bears, of course, lost to the Eagles in the wild-card round of the playoffs in January when Cody Parkey sent his potential game-winning 43-yard field goal careening off the left upright, then the crossbar, before it bounced back onto the field to end Chicago’s season. Not long after the draft had ended, Kjellsten announced on Twitter that he had been invited to Chicago’s minicamp from May 3-5.
For the first day, he practiced just as a punter, while eight other kicker hopefuls made a mess of Chicago’s ultimate test of trying to nail — you guessed it — a pressure-packed 43-yard field goal during practice. Only two succeeded. The next day, Kjellsten jumped into the placekicker mix and was one of the most accurate during the day.
Kjellsten said the process felt almost like a combine for kickers, measuring everything from the exact apex of the kick to analyzing the minuscule elements of how the ball rotated in the air off his foot.
“They brought in something like 14 specialists, and the organization did a great job of constructing pressure situations for us, and it was very competitive,” he said. “Every kick was charted, and they had all this technology on the goalpost.
“Then, at the end of practice, they had all the kickers line up, and everyone was standing on the 50-yard-line. It was silent, like you could have heard a pin drop. Every kick held a lot of weight — even if you made the kick, if the ball wasn’t rotating the right way or if it knocked off the upright and then went in, it was no good to them.”
In the end, the Bears kept just two kickers and traded a future conditional seventh-round pick to Oakland for Eddy Pineiro, so Kjellsten packed his bags off to the next stop. In New Orleans, of course, both the kicker and punter are well established, and ballyhooed LSU kicker Cole Tracy also was in town trying out.
Saints coach Sean Payton hinted Saturday that the team is potentially looking for a specialist who can both kick and punt to keep around for training camp to alleviate the work of both Wil Lutz and Thomas Morstead while taking up just one roster spot. But it’s not an immediate need, illustrated by the simple fact that the team’s minicamp kicking core didn’t go through a single drill during the close to 45 minutes of practice open to the media Saturday.
Only time will tell where Kjellsten ends up when the training camp carousel picks back up later this summer, but whether it’s in New Orleans or elsewhere, the Lake Charles native said his first two stops have helped prepare him for whatever’s next.
“We don’t get the reps everyone else does, so in a sense there’s always more pressure,” he said. “But as a kicker, that’s something you love. I want the pressure, and I feel like that only makes me a little better. Every rep has a lot more weight, so you have to go in there and rely on the things that got you there in the first place.
“Hopefully it works out.”