Leader Blues

Friday, August 14, 2009

SPORTS >> Putting his best foot forward

Leader sportswriter

JONESBORO — Ryan Wilbourn is no dummy.

His academic scholarship already confirms it, but for further proof consider how Wilbourn has been able to indulge his first love — soccer — while breaking in as a football kicker at Arkansas State.

The Searcy High School product arrived on campus with a full academic ride after being recruited by assistant David Gunn to walk on as a kicker for the Red Wolves. Wilbourn handled kickoffs as a true freshman last year and will compete for the vacant punter’s job this season.

“I saw an opportunity to walk on and earn a spot and get some playing time so I went for it,” Wilbourn said.

While drawn to Arkansas State to play football, Wilbourn admitted it was a disappointment the school doesn’t field a men’s soccer team.

However, he appears to have turned that into a plus. Wilbourn’s roommate and former high school teammate Tim Reilly is the manager of the women’s team, and the connection helped Wilbourn find an appealing way to get his kicks when not playing football.

“During the offseason I practice with them every once in awhile,” Wilbourn said. “I go kick around all the time with them because soccer is my favorite sport. It’s hard to stay away. I go to all the games.”

And of course there is the girl-to-guy ratio of those soccer workouts.

“It’s great,” Wilbourn said with a twinkle in his eye. “It’s great.”

See? No dummy.

Wilbourn, 5-10, 157 pounds, was an all-state soccer player who led Searcy to consecutive state championships in 2006 and 2007. Former football coach Bart McFarland talked him into joining the team as a 10th-grader, and as a senior, Wilbourn became the Lions’ lone all-stater and handled every kicking duty in the high school all-star game.

But he didn’t get to savor much success in a Searcy program that has won three games the past four seasons. It was the chance to win that helped lead Wilbourn to walk on with the Red Wolves.

Arkansas State won the Sun Belt Conference and reached the New Orleans Bowl in 2005, and — with key players like quarterback Corey Leonard and tailback Reggie Arnold returning for their senior seasons — are expected to contend with Troy for the title this year.

“I saw the Division I program, I saw the great success they’ve been having,” said Wilbourn, who got no major college offers in football or soccer. “They went to a bowl game a few years back. They had Corey and Reggie and great pieces on offense.”

Red Wolves coach Steve Roberts, also the special teams coordinator, doesn’t like to anoint starters for open position without seeing them compete in camp, so Wilbourn will have to contend for the punting job with Blytheville senior Brice Beck, who transferred last year from Northeast Mississippi Community College.

However it may be a good sign the Red Wolves have installed a rugby-style scheme to take advantage of Wilbourn’s ability to punt on the run and hook his kicks.

“They like it,” Wilbourn said. “I can do it consistently. I can aim the ball where I want it. We’ll see if it works for us.”

“Some of that is because of his ability to do that very well,” Roberts said of the punt scheme. “Another aspect is you see that’s sort of the way the game is going.

“As the special teams coordinator I had to defend that, we had to defend that, last year. And it’s tough to defend. It’s tough to get pressure. It’s tough to get to the block point because the block point changes all the time and it’s tough to hold people up at the line of scrimmage.”

Wilbourn now has the scheme, but he had already proved in high school he had the leg.

Wilbourn launched a 68-yard punt that helped Searcy win the 2007 homecoming game against Jacksonville. The Lions led 10-7 on a 38-yard, third-quarter field goal by Wilbourn but were facing fourth down on their 22 in the closing minutes.

Wilbourn boomed his punt, enabling Searcy to hold on to its first victory in 17 games.

In the 2006 state soccer final against Jonesboro, Wilbourn was the goalkeeper who made two key stops, on a line shot from the penalty box and again on the rebound, to help Searcy to its 1-0 victory.

But despite his two-time all-state selection and his MVP performance in the 3-1, 2008 championship victory over Mountain Home, the best scholarship offers Wilbourn could get came from NAIA and NCAA Division II schools.

He had already qualified for the all the academic aid he would need at a number of places, including Arkansas State, so when Gunn tried to talk him into walking on with the Red Wolves, Wilbourn listened.

“We felt like after coach Roberts evaluated the tape he had a very good chance of becoming a very good collegiate kicker, which he has,” Gunn said.

“I compared Division I to Division II and that was an easy decision,” Wilbourn said. “I wanted to play soccer and I looked at soccer opportunities and most of them were smaller, NAIA schools, even, a couple D II schools. Some of them were even as far away as the other side of Tennessee.

“This right here is an hour and a half from home; 90 miles and I’m at my driveway.”

Gunn said it is likely a football scholarship will soon become available, and when it does it will go to Wilbourn, who is majoring in biology. But the fact Wilbourn already had academic money gave the Red Wolves a nice option.

“That certainly doesn’t take anything from the value that he has for our football team,” Gunn said. “But with him being successful academically, that has afforded us a luxury that once one comes available we can place him on it. It’s not one of these things where it’s like ‘We’ve got to do something or we’re going to lose a young man.’ ”

Red Wolves place kicker Josh Arauco earned his scholarship in much the same way, and has since gone on to set a school record with 15 field goals in a row and starts his second season on the Lou Groza award watch list after he made the final three last year.

Wilbourn, whose top practice distance in high school was 62 yards, expects to contend for Arauco’s job too after Arauco exhausts his eligibility this year.

“Kicking with him is great,” Wilbourn said. “It’s just like going to a camp every day. I get the best instruction you can have, really, because he’s top three in the nation. You get to kick with him every day, it improves yourself.”