Oct. 15, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – Amoreto Curraj is a guy who obviously understands what a real kick is … and he’s certainly having one in his first two months in Marshall’s football program.
Curraj has quickly developed into the thunderfoot of the Thundering Herd. His consistent touchbacks on kickoffs have aided not only special teams, but also the improved Herd defense via field position.
Curraj (pronounced CURR-e) has 25 touchbacks in 37 kickoffs – and no kicks out of bounds. To put that in perspective, coach Doc Holliday’s first three Marshall teams had 10 touchbacks combined.
The NCAA began recording touchbacks as an official statistic in 2007 as part of kick return defense. In the six seasons prior (2007-12), Marshall had 28 touchbacks. Curraj has a shot at that number in seven games, when the Herd (4-2, 2-0) visits Middle Tennessee (3-4, 1-2) for an Oct. 24 Thursday night national Fox Sports 1 telecast game.
Last season, the Herd averaged 56.4 yards on kickoffs. Curraj’s average in 2013 is 64.4. He’s also saving the Herd coverage team from plenty of violent collisions on kickoffs.
“Basically, Doc just tells me, ‘Do what you need to do,’” said Curraj, who was 4-for-4 for touchbacks in Saturday’s 24-23 squeak past FAU. “He tells me to kick the ball, and basically he recruited me to get touchbacks, so that’s what I’m trying to do, get touchbacks.
“The FAU game I needed to get touchbacks, because my friend (freshman Reggie Brown, of Tampa) was a kickoff return man and there was no way I was going to give him a chance to return anything. I had to do that for sure.”
Despite what Holliday jokingly is peddling on the rubber-chicken circuit – that he really can’t understand Curraj – the teenaged kicker speaks great English.
And writing only about Curraj’s strong right leg would shortchange the story. At 18 – he was born June 22, 1995 in Skhoder, Albania – he’s the youngest player on the Herd roster.
“They don’t know anything about football,” Curraj said, smiling, when asked what people in his homeland know about his adopted game. “They know it’s a game and some of them even know what a football looks like, but that’s about as much as they know. That’s about it.”
He’s the youngest player on the Herd roster. Like most kickers in most FBS programs, he arrived here without a grant-in-aid. He was a high school soccer player and never kicked a football until his junior year at Leto High School in Tampa.
“It wasn’t what we saw, it was what we heard,” Leto High assistant coach James Bussell said of Curraj’s American football audition in an interview with a Tampa Bay area TV station. “The first time he hit the football, it was like a gun going off, a loud boom.”
Curraj said he remembers that day, but never figured it would lead to major college football.
“My junior year in high school was the first time I ever kicked a football,” said Curraj, who immigrated to the United States when he was 5 or 6 with his parents, Zef and Ardiane Curraj. “I was outside with some friends, just throwing (a football) around, also of a sudden I hear, hey ‘Reto, try to kick a 40-yarder, and I was, ‘I can’t make it.’
“And I did, and the coach was watching and he said, ‘You’ll definitely be on the team. From there, I just started playing my junior year, senior year. My senior year was when I really started to develop as a kicker, and now I’m here … That one was about 40-45 yards.”
He kicked three field goals as a senior for the Falcons, who were 0-20 in his two years on the team, but where Curraj attracted more attention was as the co-kicking champion at the annual Kornblue Kicking Challenge last December in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. – thanks to a 79-yard kickoff, an event record.
“We moved from Albania when I was 5 or 6, so I had not too much time to play soccer over there; I was just a pre-K,” Curraj said. “When I came here to the States I started playing soccer, and I was pretty good at it, played competitively, played throughout high school, then started playing football.
“I played both my junior and senior years. It’s easier (to play both sports) in high school than in college, they don’t really interfere with each other, so I was able to do that. I had to ask my (football) coach. He said he was fine with it. I asked my soccer coach, and he said he was fine with it, so why not do it?”
Considering his performance to date, it would seem Curraj will follow in the kicking footsteps of Herd punter Tyler Williams, who came to Marshall last season as a walk-on, had Freshman All-America and school-record success -- and was given a scholarship after one semester.
I asked Curraj if he had any theories why so few major college kickers are recruited with scholarships as entering freshmen. His response was as deep as his kickoffs.
“Honestly, I wish I knew, but it’s because kickers are kind of like a liability,” he said. “The transition from high school to college is a big one. A lot of kickers can’t do it, and some of them can. A lot of kickers who get scholarships are usually the 5-star kickers that come out of high school, but a lot of us get unnoticed.
“I didn’t kick until my junior year, so a lot of coaches didn’t know how consistent I’d be out of high school. They didn’t think I’d be that good, you know. Basically, that’s the main reason it’s that way.”
He’s quickly picked up on how important his role is for the Herd, not to mention how crucial special teams success can be a tide-turner.
“We have special teams meetings, about one every day,” Curraj said. “We focus on special teams so much, and we try to be the best in America on special teams. Doc always says that, and he always says, ‘If you dominate on special; teams, you will win.’
“And we dominated special teams this (FAU) game, and we won. In the losses that we’ve had, it’s basically because we didn’t do well on special teams … special teams are important.
“People don’t realize that, until you kind of really watch it happen yourself. I didn’t think they were that important, either, until I saw it happen myself, because you just kick a ball. I didn’t think anything could change the game that much, but it really could.”
Curraj is right. At FAU, Marshall won with a punt return touchdown, a game-winning field goal, 3-for-3 on PATs (FAU missed one, which was decisive), and Curraj’s four touchbacks.
In a triple-overtime loss at Virginia Tech, the Herd had a punt blocked for a Hokies’ score and missed a field goal and had another blocked. In a defeat at Ohio, there was a kickoff return fumble into the end zone for a Bobcats’ touchdown, a 48-yard Ohio punt return (longest play of the season against the Herd) that led to a field goal and a 36-yard punting average.
Curraj pointed to the comeback win at FAU and its impact in winning in so many MU players’ home state – and the late 10-point rally.
“A win’s a win, but this … I can honestly say it gave the team a new level of confidence,” he said.
His opinion is the type of tough game it was and the fact that Marshall has 34 Sunshine Staters on the roster could make FAU-Marshall a budding Conference USA East Division rivalry.
“It really could be, even by next year,” he said. “FAU is a great team to play against. And it’s Florida, and Marshall has so many Florida kids that it basically could be Florida versus Florida. So, I definitely see it becoming a rivalry game, definitely.”
Meanwhile, after leaving his homeland as a little boy about a dozen years ago, Curraj is again adjusting – nicely, he said – after making the move to Marshall.
“It was a great transition from high school football to here,” he said. “I loved it. I go from high school football, which is fun, to college football, a completely different experience. But it was great coming from my high school, which isn’t that great at football, then coming here, winning my first game, winning in Florida last week.
“Being around the other players, it makes you feel big-time when you’re playing college football on this level. It’s a great feeling to have.”
His kickoff success has followed a whirlwind of an arrival here in early August.
“I didn’t come until (preseason) camp,” Curraj said. “It was an eye-opening thing, and I’m an only child, too, and I’ve been with my family all of my life. Leaving my parents, being this far away (nearly 900 miles), doing two-a-days, it was a dramatic change at first and I didn’t think I’d be able to get used to it.
“Everyone welcomed me and it calmed me. But it was definitely eye-opening. I’d never been around anything like this.”
And so far, he’s done nothing but put his best foot forward.