Cameron Nizialek, who holds a degree in economics from Columba University, made what he called a “calculated decision,” in relocating from New York City to Athens.
His pursuit was landing the Georgia punting job and further building his resume for a steady paycheck after college.
“I’ve got one year and I want to play at the next level so I had to weigh those things,” Nizialek said.
It was a virtually no risk move for Georgia to have Nizialek join the program last winter as a graduate transfer since he came as a walk-on.
“There was no loss of value for us,” coach Kirby Smart said. “Look what we got out of it.”
That’s easy to see on Saturdays when Nizialek’s booming punts and Georgia’s smothering coverage team have turned around that area of special teams.
The Bulldogs are seventh in the nation in net punting at 42.88, a vast improvement from finishing 112th last season at 34.90.
“It’s important to flip the field,” said Nizialek, who averages 43.2 yards per punt, good for 37th nationally and seventh in the SEC. “It gives our offense and defense confidence when we can do that.”
Nizialek mapped out going from an Ivy League school to a big-time football program way back in his first season at Columbia when he redshirted.
“I knew I wanted to graduate in three and a half years so I could come in the spring and win the job in the spring potentially,” he said.
He researched the punting situations at the schools he was also considering including Clemson, Virginia Tech and South Carolina.
He visited Georgia for the Georgia Tech game on Thanksgiving weekend last year. That trip came a week after his final Columbia season ended with a win at Brown, which snapped a three-game losing streak to Yale, Harvard and Cornell.
The Ivy League’s leading punter last season (44.8) saw a chance to step right in at Georgia because sophomore Marshall Long was still coming back from a knee cap injury that cut short his freshman season and kept him out of spring practices. The Georgia combination of Long and Brice Ramsey last year averaged 37.5 yards a punt.
“He saw an opportunity and he seized it,” Smart said.
There was a connection between Georgia special teams coach Shane Beamer and Dan Orner, a kicking coach out of North Carolina, who worked with Nizialek, Long and David Marvin, the kicker who came to Georgia this season from Wofford as a graduate transfer on scholarship. Smart also credited James Vollono, the program’s special teams analyst last season for helping get Nizialek to Georgia.
Nizialek, from Chantilly, Va., wasn’t highly recruited out of high school. His parents, Jason and Tanya, are Duke graduates and he said he wanted to get “the best degree possible.”
After playing before crowds ranging from 1,973 to 11,233 last season, Nizialek is now kicking at home before a crowd of nearly 93,000 and at Tennessee before 102,455.
“I didn’t even know Columbia had enough room to practice punting that much,” CBS college football analyst Gary Danielson said during the broadcast of Georgia’s win at Tennessee. “ Aren’t there a lot of buildings around there?”
Nizialek, who has six punts of 50 or more yards, said his focus has been to kick the ball high for optimal hang time and to limit returns. Georgia is 16th in the nation and second in the SEC in punt return defense at 1.80 yards.
“He hits bombs,” inside linebacker Roquan Smith said. “It’s fun covering those type of kicks for a guy who enjoys doing what he does.”
Georgia has given up nine punt return yards all season. The longest return had been 1 yard at Notre Dame before Vanderbilt had a 13-yard return off a 59-yard punt Saturday.
“I outkicked the coverage a little bit,” he said.
“I would love for him to be a little more consistent with yardage and hang,” Smart said. “We always talk to him about that. That’s a hard job to measure because every punter wants to bang it as far as he can and we want him to hit it as far as he can. He just has to balance that with the hang time and the distance. He hit that one a little firm. He went 90-degree driver instead of the 12-degree, but he drove it and we gotta cover whatever he kicks. I’m proud of the way he’s kicking, but that’s one that he’s got to improve on.”
He didn’t have guys like Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Jayson Stanley and Mecole Hardman covering punts at Columbia.
“We had a really good punt team but not the same kind of athletes,” he said.
Nizialek is on the watch list for the Ray Guy Award for nation’s top punter and jokes he wants to win the award for nation’s top holder (something that actually now exists) since he has that gig, too.
“He’s a firecracker,” kicker Rodrigo Blankenship said. “He comes into practice with a smile on his face and every day has a lot of energy, trying to pump guys up. Then he gets out on the field and hits 50-yard punts so that really helps, too.”
Nizialek brought out his Columbia class ring to wear for a career fair players attended during preseason camp, Blankenship said, but he’s blended in like one of the guys.
“I’m living the dream,” Nizialek said. “I love Athens and I love this town. I’m excited because every week is a new opportunity to show what I got and I think I’m doing a good job. I’m having a great time.”