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BY KERRY EGGERS/PORTLAND TRIBUNE/Rodriguez shines, especiall for someone without a scholarship until this year -- and he can drop-kick

RODRIGUEZ

CORVALLIS — Daniel Rodriguez's batting average as a drop-kicker is 1,000.

In a 42-23 loss at Washington last season, his drop-kick after an Oregon State score was recovered by teammate David Morris. In last Saturday's 48-31 win at UCLA, the senior punter from Pleasanton, California, did it again, lofting a high drop-kick that — guess who? — Morris gathered at the Bruins' 27-yard line. On the next play, Jake Luton found Teagan Quitoriano on a touchdown pass that lifted OSU into a 21-0 lead just six minutes into the game.

And lest we forget, Rodriguez executed and recovered an onside kick against Arizona as a sophomore in 2017.

Rodriguez, who also punted three times for a 47.7-yard average against UCLA, was named Pac-12 Special Teams Player of the Week for his performance.

"It's a huge honor," the 5-10, 205-pound Rodriguez said. "But I have to give it to the cover guys. They did their job well."

It's not surprising that Rodriguez has learned to be a credible drop-kicker. He has proved his versatility with his feet. The former high school soccer standout came to Oregon State in 2015 intending to be a place-kicker and was the backup there until winning the punting job as a junior a year ago.

Going into Saturday's 5 p.m. date with 15th-ranked Utah at Reser Stadium, Rodriguez has averaged 47.9 yards on 14 punts this season. That's on pace to shatter the school single-season record of 45.6 set by Dainard Paulson in 1959. It would rank Rodriguez second in the Pac-12 and seventh nationally this season if he had enough attempts to qualify for the leader board (it requires 3.6 punts per game). He has placed five punts inside the 20-yard line and has four punts of 50 yards or more.

Not bad for a player who wasn't even on scholarship until this summer. Rodriguez, 23, paid his own way through four years at OSU after arriving as an invited walk-on in 2015.

"It was pretty cool that Daniel got the Pac-12 award," OSU special teams coach Jake Cookus said. "He is having a really good year so far. He is improved tremendously from when he got here."

Rodriguez's older sisters both played college soccer — Allie at Oregon, Emmy at Oregon State. Daniel was a soccer player first at Foothill High, a three-year starter as a defender and midfielder.

"My sisters helped me grow up as a player," he said.

Before his junior year, Rodriguez ran into the school's football coach, Matt Sweeney, who asked him to come out for the team. He won the punting and place-kicking jobs, booting a 43-yard field goal as a junior and earning second-team all-state honors as a senior.

Rodriguez said he had scholarship offers to play at a couple of NCAA Division II schools, but wanted to challenge himself at the highest level possible. He contacted Oregon State's coaching staff — coach Mike Riley and special teams coach Bruce Read — and thought things were "going well" until Riley left for Nebraska. Rodriguez contacted Riley's successor, Gary Andersen, who eventually offered a non-scholarship spot, and Rodriguez was on board.

Rodriguez waited for an opportunity to play. And waited. He redshirted his first year, did not play as a redshirt freshman, then got his first taste of game action late in his sophomore campaign in 2017, kicking off three times.

Things changed in 2018, after punter Nick Porebski's eligibility expired. His heir apparent, Alex Bland, left school. That opened up an opportunity for Rodriguez, who still had to win the job after not having punted in a game in four years.

Rodriguez won the job and more. He averaged 41.9 yards per punt, sixth in the Pac-12, with 13 punts inside the 20 and nine of 50 yards or more. And this summer, he got a scholarship.

"I'm super happy and grateful," Rodriguez said. "My family is proud of me. It's great to not have to have my parents help me out financially. I'm so thankful to the coaching staff for believing in me."

Cookus said he has enjoyed every aspect of coaching Rodriguez.

"I like the way Daniel goes about his business," he said. "I've seen him mature. Football is important to him. He works hard. He takes care of his body. He works hard on his flexibility. He watches (video) film. He has done every little thing he can to get better. He is always trying to get that slight edge, and it has paid off for him.

"He's just a good kid, the kind of guy you want in your program. He cares about the team and is going to do things right, on and off the field."

Rodriguez employs the rugby-style, end-over-end punt so many collegians use these days.

"Coach Cookus likes it because it's accurate and harder to return," Rodriguez said. "I like the option of being able to spray the ball around. It's not the same thing every time."

Rodriguez is an excellent student who expects to complete his degree in digital communications, with a minor in business, this term. He has twice participated in the Beavers Without Borders program, the second time this summer when he ventured to the Dominican Republic with a group that included three teammates — Andrzej Hughes-Murray, Keishon Dawkins and Jesiah Irish.

"We helped build a story to the house of an orphanage," Rodriguez said. "It was hard work, but we met some great people. Getting a chance to experience the culture was eye-opening. It makes you thankful for what we have here."

Rodriguez has enjoyed playing for Cookus, a former OSU safety who was a college teammate of head coach Jonathan Smith. Cookus is in his fourth season as the Beavers' special teams coach.

"Coach Cookus has been a great role model for me," Rodriguez said. "He knows what it's like to be a Beaver. He has learned a lot about punting and has become very helpful to me."

Rodriguez would welcome a shot at the NFL, but will first enjoy the final vestiges of his college career.

"I've loved it here at Oregon State," he said. "I wouldn't change it for the world. It's been hard, it's been a grind at times, but I'm thankful for the experience."

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@kerryeggers


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