By Brad Fauber - firstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER -- Cory Gay has grown accustomed to using his foot to help out the Shenandoah University football team.
A three-year starter at punter for the Hornets, Gay has uncorked his fair share of kicks over the years. What the senior isn't used to is employing his arm and his legs -- well, at least not both of them -- to provide Shenandoah with a strategic edge.
But Gay has turned into a triple-threat of sorts for Shenandoah through the early part of the season, as he has successfully executed a pair of fake punts -- one passing and one rushing -- in the Hornets' first two games this year.
"The first day of camp, we had a big team meeting and the coaches said that they talked all summer and they want to take risks this year," Gay said. "We've never done fake punts until this year, so it definitely elevates the game more and brings more excitement to the team. It's fun to do something different for the team."
Shenandoah's coaching staff was quick to make good on its promise to take more risks as Gay got the call for a bit of trickery early in the second quarter in the season-opener at Stevenson.
With the Hornets trailing 3-0 and facing a fourth-and-2 at their own 46-yard line, Gay, who played some quarterback at Varina High School, faked a rugby-style kick and connected with teammate Byron Mitchell on a short screen pass. Mitchell took the ball 41 yards to Stevenson's 13-yard line, setting up an eventual 3-yard touchdown run by Andrew Smith to give Shenandoah the lead.
The Hornets (1-1) went on to win the game 26-16.
"I think that turned us for Stevenson -- I think that fake pass really sparked the offense," Gay said. "[Defensive coordinator] Brock [McCullough] always talks about how special teams will swing the momentum of the game and, if you win the special teams battle, 90 percent of the time you'll win the game."
Gay's second opportunity at a fake punt attempt came in the second quarter of SU's 14-7 loss to Ferrum last week. On the play, Gay was given the option to either punt the ball away or attempt to run for the first down. He noticed Ferrum's blockers dropped back to set up a possible punt return, and the senior tucked the ball and ran for 19 yards into Ferrum territory for a first down.
Gay said the key to a successful fake attempt is all about the timing of the play.
"You obviously don't want to run it on fourth-and-10 -- [the opponent] is going to be containing and might come out all-block," Gay said. "The element of surprise is what Coach [McCullough] likes to talk about. You can't show it -- you just have to surprise [the opponent] at one point, and that's when it works."
It isn't all about the trick plays for Gay, however. The senior has handled his normal punting duties quite well, averaging 36.5 yards on 15 punts while pinning three kicks inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Shenandoah head coach Paul Barnes praised Gay's execution so far this season, and Barnes was particularly pleased with his punter's effort last Saturday against Ferrum. Gay punted the ball nine times against the Panthers, averaging 39.1 yards per try, and tied the school record with a 65-yard boot in the fourth quarter.
"He played like a great senior. He played as good a game as any punter I've seen," Barnes said. "I just think his experience dealing with punting -- for so many years he's been our punter -- it showed on Saturday how well he controls that punting game."
Gay said he embraces the challenges that come with being a punter at the college level, and he enjoys the tall task of having to consistently put together solid kicks in the small amount of time he has on the field during each punt.
Despite this season being his last for Shenandoah, Gay said he's still not where he wants to be as a punter and continues to work each and every practice to improve his skills.
"I don't feel like I've reached my potential as a senior, and what I'm striving for every day is to get to be where I can be the best punter Shenandoah's ever had," said Gay.
Shenandoah's future opponents may start looking for the fake any time Gay and the Hornets line up in a punt formation the rest of the season, but Gay joked that he hoped to score a touchdown off a fake by season's end.
Even if he doesn't set foot into the end zone, Gay is still happy to help the Hornets in any way that he can, even if that means he has to settle for first downs instead of touchdowns.
"Whatever gets us the first down is obviously the goal," Gay said. "Everybody wants to get a touchdown out there when you're running a fake and you don't get the glory. But a first down gets the coaches happy, gets the players happy -- I'm good with that."