Nevada placekicker Julian Diaz lives and kicks by a simple, but valuable life lesson.
“I learned early on that nothing is given to you,” he said. “You have to work for what you want, and I carry that with me through each process and kick.”
Nothing has come easy for Diaz throughout his playing career, and he’s grown to seize each opportunity. He never kicked a football up until his freshman season at Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Calif., a moment that arrived through unique circumstances.
Julian’s older brother, Giovanni, served as the senior kicker at Lincoln High. An injury forced him to miss that week’s contest, which prompted fellow coaches to give his then-soccer prevalent younger brother a chance to try out for the position.
As the youngest sibling of two brothers in a soccer-heavy family, Julian never imagined kicking a football, let alone filling his brother’s cleats in a week’s time. All it took was just one practice to make an everlasting impression.
“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” he said. “I was coming back from soccer practice and the coaches asked me to kick a few footballs. My first kick at that practice just swooshed through the uprights, and I had a huge smile on my face… From that moment on, I thought I would enjoy it, and it turned out for the best.”
Several years and hundreds of kicks later, Diaz hasn’t slowed his pursuit of individual perfection. Through the trials of junior college and receiving zero Division I offers out of high school, he garnered recognition as one of the nation’s top punters during his truncated senior season at Nevada.
After serving as the Wolf Pack’s primary kickoff specialist as a junior in 2019, Diaz excelled as a punter in 2020 despite his limited experience. His season-long punt of 76 yards finished tied for fourth in the nation, while his 46.3 yard punting average ranked eighth in the nation.
Nevada special teams coordinator Thomas Sheffiled has seen his fair share of punters and kickers during his three-year stint at Arkansas-Pine Bluff— who broke school records and led the Southwestern Athletic Conference in several categories during his stay there— but he was quickly impressed by Diaz’s composure.
Just like his former high school football coaches, Diaz left Sheffield in awe of his natural ability.
“He’s not your average punter, I can guarantee you that,” Sheffield said. “He had no punting experience when I first came here, but he’s really worked to become one of the best punters in the country, and he’s done that.”
Diaz made the most of his two seasons with the Wolf Pack. He cherishes each moment in part to his obstacle-filled path to excel at the Division I stage. After receiving zero Division I collegiate offers, Diaz went the JUCO route and attended American River College in Sacramento, Calif.
Without any offers, Diaz relied upon those valuable life lessons and struggles in hopes of making it to the next collegiate level.
“I had nothing to lose at that point,” he said. “They said if I came there I might have a chance to make it to the next level. Since I didn’t receive any other offers, it’s better than not playing at all.”
Through two seasons at American River College, Diaz ranked second in the state with a 61.4 yard average per kickoff. He went 79-of-88 on PAT attempts and 16-of-23 on field goals. Diaz’s stellar performance earned him a Division I offer from Nevada, an opportunity he sought all along.
“It was a dream come true for me,” he said. “Nevada was always one of my dream schools growing up. I came on a visit, saw the campus and committed the following day.”
Wolf Pack alum Quinton Conoway’s departure left a gaping hole at punter for the 2020 season. Diaz’s experience at the position posed a question mark heading into the year, but he erased any doubts of his ability with his diligent work ethic.
He put in extra practice over the year to tweak his mechanics, which helped strengthen Nevada’s special teams unit.
“I didn’t know how that lack of experience would hurt him, but it hasn’t slowed him down,” Sheffield said. “He continues to work and has done everything I’ve asked him to do. He’s helped bring our special teams unit to those higher standards we set for ourselves.”
Diaz’s senior season ended in a 7-2 record and Famous Idaho Potato Bowl victory over Tulane. He totaled 63 yards over two punts in the win. His consistency as a punter helped the Wolf Pack clinch their second bowl championship in three seasons, but his humble attitude opened the eyes of Sheffield and coaches on staff.
“We know about Julian the player, but him as a person is right up there as well,” Sheffield said. “He goes about his everyday business always trying to learn and improve.”
Through countless obstacles and trials, Diaz accomplished his dream of making it to college football’s most competitive level. Each experience fueled his competitive spirit to overcome any obstacle in his way.
The NCAA’s Division I Council granted all winter sport athletes an extra year of eligibility, and it iss possible Diaz may return for the Pack. Regardless, he reached new heights during his 2020 senior season.
“I was just happy to have an opportunity to play in this crazy year,” he said. “It humbled me, and I’ll look back on it with so much gratitude.”
Isaiah Burrows can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @IsaiahBurrows_.