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Football: Unheralded Ortego emerging as star at UL

Cajuns’ punter has a unique story

Spencer Ortego wanted to play college football so badly, he resorted to visual aids.

Ortego, Teurlings Catholic’s punter and kicker in his final two high school seasons, bugged UL coach Rickey Bustle all of last summer, asking for a chance to be a part of the Cajun squad.

Finally, a couple of days after the Cajuns opened fall drills, he went to Bustle’s office with a copy of that day’s Daily Advertiser – one in which Bustle had expressed concerns about UL’s punting game.

"He came in with my quote circled," Bustle said. "He wanted to play so bad."

It just so happened that the Cajuns’ fall-practice roster dropped below the NCAA maximum of 105 that very day because of early injuries. With the spot available, Bustle told Ortego to be ready to go the next day.

"I had been talking to him all summer, just hoping to walk on," Ortego said, "but they had too many numbers. All of a sudden, I’m dressing the next day. I was so nervous."

"I always told him to be ready in case we lose somebody," Bustle said. "Sometimes it’s just a timing thing. He sure kept coming back … It showed that he really wanted to be here."

Originally, all Ortego wanted was a chance to be on the practice field, to learn from the older guys and gather as much knowledge as he could. Little did he know that he’d wind up as the Cajuns’ regular punter, a slot he’s held throughout the first half of his true freshman season.

"It’s all happened in such a rush for me, so quick," he said. "The nerves were the biggest thing to get over, suddenly starting in college. It took a while to get that out of my system."

Last Saturday’s game at Arkansas State may have been the point that the nerves went away. Ortego had far and away the best game of his career, punting eight times for a 48.0 average and limiting ASU to only 34 return yards on those eight punts. That added up to a sterling 43.8 net punting average.

"The punting average is important," Ortego said, "but getting down and getting good coverage is the most important thing. Our goal on the pride team is to allow five yards or less on returns, so net is what we look at the most."

Ortego should have been the Sun Belt Conference and Louisiana special teams player of the week, since his average and net numbers were better than dual honor winner and Sun Belt punting leader Scott Love of UL Monroe. In fact, if those awards are based on bettering the norm, his Saturday performance was 12 yards better than his season average entering the weekend (36.1). He had the three longest kicks of his career during the Cajuns’ 52-21 loss to the Indians.

His average is up to 38.6 for the season.

"That was really the first time I got the nerves out of the way and hit the ball well," Ortego said of Saturday’s game. "Our punt team had its best game, and coach (Brian) Jenkins has worked with me to have a straighter leg swing and getting my drop more consistent. I’m releasing it a little later so it falls straighter, and I’ve been in there watching film to see what I can do better."

Ortego was a soccer veteran, but also played "regular" football as a freshman and sophomore at Teurlings. After a neck injury, doctors told him that playing another position wouldn’t be wise, so he started concentrating on kicking chores.

"I’ve done a lot better just kicking than I ever did playing regular football," he said. "I have had to learn to get punts off quicker. We aim to get the punt off in 2.1 seconds, and I usually range from 2.0 to 2.2 depending on the snap. Scott (deep snapper Scott Hayes) does a great job of getting it back there."

"He had a couple of good ones the week before," Bustle said, "but it looked like he was more comfortable Saturday. He’s really come a long way."