LARAMIE — He cracked a smile.
For a moment, it masked the frustration of the thought he verbalized seconds later.
The secret was out on Cooper Rothe. Between connecting on 18 straight field goals dating back to his sophomore season and eventually being named the Mountain West Special Teams Player of the Year, even the seclusion of Wyoming couldn’t keep word of Rothe emerging as one of the nation’s best kickers from getting out.
On a chilly, blustery first Saturday of November against San Jose State last season, Rothe trotted out on the War Memorial Stadium turf midway through the first quarter looking for No. 19 in a row. He had hit from longer than the 43-yarder he was lining up to attempt, but with winds exceeding 30 miles per hour, Rothe knew this would be no ordinary field goal.
He planned to start the kick wider right than usual and let the wind draw it back. But Rothe said the gusts had been even stronger than that during pregame warmups, so exactly how hard it would be blowing once the ball was in the air — and exactly how far right he needed to aim — was anyone’s guess. The snap and the hold were good, but the kick stayed right. And the nation’s longest field-goal streak was over.
That smile isn’t as wide as he starts to reminisce.
“I still bite at the one last year that I missed,” Rothe said.
An emphasis on one. Had Rothe split the uprights with that kick, he would’ve finished a perfect 17-for-17 on field goals. Instead, he settled for the nation’s highest field-goal percentage (94.1).
It not only earned Rothe the conference special teams player of the year nod but also a trip to the College Football Hall of Fame in Atlanta for The Home Depot College Football Awards in December. He joined Syracuse’s Andre Szmyt and LSU’s Cole Tracy as finalists for the Lou Groza award, which annually goes to the nation’s top placekicker.
He didn’t win it. The award went to Szmyt, which gets Wyoming coach Craig Bohl thinking back to that chilly November afternoon, too.
“The conditions weren’t good, and he missed that one,” Bohl said. “Otherwise he might’ve won the whole award.”
Elements or not, Rothe has largely been money for the Cowboys. He’s connected on more than 81 percent of his field goals since taking over kicking duties as a true freshmen — a clip that’s been even higher the last two seasons. He missed just four of his combined 35 attempts his sophomore and junior seasons and picked up right where he left off in his first game as a senior, going 3-for-3 against Missouri in Wyoming’s 37-31 upset last week.
Considering the options Rothe had before arriving at Wyoming — the kind the Cowboys didn’t — Wyoming couldn’t ask for much more.
What Rothe is doing is ironic considering he wasn’t all that serious about kicking when he first started high school. In fact, he was among the rest of the armchair quarterbacks — kickers? — that mocked the very idea of it.
“I’ll be the first to admit, I was the person that would make fun of kickers and be like, ‘How would you miss that? That’s the easiest position,’” Rothe said. “Stuff like that.”
Rothe was a three-sport athlete at Longmont High across the border in Colorado. As a center fielder and leadoff hitter, he might’ve been the best athlete on the Trojans’ varsity baseball team. He was a floor general as the point guard for Longmont’s varsity basketball team.
And on the football field, Rothe was far more interested in meeting receivers over the middle or ball carriers in the hole than having his toe meet leather on a kickoff or field goal. He was an all-state defensive back for the Trojans. As a senior, he broke up 12 passes, intercepted nine more and returned three of them for touchdowns.
“I wasn’t trying to go to college and be a kicker,” Rothe said.
But he had quite the leg.
He started experimenting with Longmont’s kicking duties as a sophomore and connected on a 45-yarder that season. He emerged as an impact defensive back his junior season when he had the first of back-to-back nine-interceptions seasons, but even now, Rothe is still just 175 pounds. Rothe attended one of Wyoming’s summer camps heading into his senior season as a kicker — an indication of the position the Cowboys wanted to recruit him to play.
“Never,” Wyoming assistant A.J. Cooper said when asked if the coaching staff ever recruited Rothe as a defensive back. “We were very upfront with him about it because you don’t want to get a kid that thinks he’s one thing and then he gets here and it’s, ‘Well actually you’re this.’”
An offer from Wyoming came as a kicker, but even then, Rothe said he was still sending tape to cornerbacks coach John Richardson in hopes of being a defensive back. It wasn’t until Rothe connected on a 55-yard field goal during his senior season that he realized how far kicking could possibly take him.
“That’s when I started to get more serious,” Rothe said.
But other schools were interested in him in other sports, too. Rothe received a few scholarship offers in baseball and an offer in basketball from a junior college, but he said he didn’t give the latter much thought. Ultimately he chose the full ride of a football scholarship, creating the one scenario he never thought would actually play out.
“I just could never imagine myself being a kicker, but once they offered me, I’m like, ‘All right,’” Rothe said. “And my parents told me if (Wyoming) is paying for a scholarship, you better give them your all and be the best you can be.”
The decisions at that point were minimal. Neither Colorado nor Colorado State offered him a football scholarship. The only other school that did was Air Force, but Rothe said it wasn’t the right fit for him.
He committed to Wyoming during his senior season before signing with the Cowboys in February 2016. Wyoming was coming off a 2-10 season in Bohl’s second year at the helm and offered its new kicker opportunity as much as anything else.
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Additions and subtractions make for numerous positions that need shoring up every offseason, but kicker might’ve been at the top of the list for Wyoming heading into the 2016 season.
“We definitely identified that,” Cooper said.
The Cowboys had a freshman walk-on that handled kicking duties in 2015 in Tristan Bailey. Wyoming attempted just eight field goals that season. Even worse, Bailey connected on just two of them.
In December of that year, Bailey was one of three players that Wyoming announced had left the team. It added to the urgency of finding an answer to one of the Cowboys’ biggest question marks.
“Like we try to do with a lot of kids, we were upfront (with Rothe) and said, ‘This is what we see you as. Obviously this is our depth. This is going to be your opportunity to play,’” said Cooper, who was Rothe’s primary recruiter as the Cowboys’ special teams coordinator.
Senior Justin Martin was at the top of the depth chart coming out spring practice, but by the time the 2016 opener against Northern Illinois rolled around, it was Rothe who had the No. 1 spot. Rothe attempted four field goals in Wyoming’s victory and made two of them.
Rothe nearly had a third make in his collegiate debut — a 48-yarder that would’ve won it for Wyoming in regulation — but NIU called a timeout just before the kick to negate it. Rothe pushed the second attempt right before the Cowboys won 40-34 three overtimes later.
Rothe made 11 of his final 16 field-goal attempts that season. It made for a just a 65-percent conversion rate, but it gave birth to the stability Rothe has brought to the position the last handful of years.
“I just knew (Cooper) said I’d have the opportunity to start my first year, that last year was in the past and just to focus on starting a new career and starting fresh,” Rothe said. I’ve heard some things throughout (about the 2015 season), but I don’t really listen to them.”
Rothe said he never really felt comfortable kicking as a true freshman. He was adjusting not only to the college game but the fact he wasn’t playing multiple sports anymore. He focused on strengthening his right leg in the weight room, and he began kicking just as much in the offseason as he did during the season to hone his lone craft.
As a sophomore, he started settling into the groove he’s been in ever since. He connected on 15 of 18 field goals with a career-long 49-yarder at the time and followed that up by making his first 15 field goals last season as a junior.
“He’s become really consistent, but that has not been just by chance,” Bohl said. “He really works at it hard. It’s a great case in point of a guy that has ability but also the ability to focus and improve.”
And while the elements threw off his perfect junior season, Rothe has proven he can deliver in just about any conditions. He split the uprights with a 43-yarder in the snow in Wyoming’s 16-13 win over Colorado State two years ago. Rothe said he’s also spent time training with former Wyoming kicker Deric Yaussi, but he likes to joke that he doesn’t waste time practicing under sunny skies because those aren’t usually the conditions he kicks in playing in the backdrop of the Snowy Range.
“If you’re going to play in the North Atlantic, you’ve got to train in the North Atlantic is what we say,” Bohl said.
Rothe is becoming automatic regardless of the situation.
“You know what you’re going to get out of him,” Cooper said. “I can’t say I thought he was going to be this good. We thought he was going to be pretty dang good. He continues every year to get better and exceed our expectations.”
So what does a kicker that led the nation in field-goal percentage a season ago and has made 19 of his last 20 have to work on exactly?
“Accuracy, consistency, power, strength,” Rothe said. “On kickoffs, hang time, distance and location. So basically everything.”
The start to his final season at Wyoming was perfect. His makes against Missouri weren’t the most daunting kicks with his longest coming from just 23 yards out, but they set the tone for the kind of season Rothe expects out of himself.
Rothe is the overwhelming favorite to repeat as the MW’s Special Teams Player of the Year after earning that nod in the preseason, but he wants another shot at that Groza award. Perfection would give him as good a shot as any.
“If it’s a little bit to the right, I want it straight down the middle every time,” Rothe said. “That’s my goal is to be perfect.”
But Rothe has bigger goals. He said he likes to watch Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker, and who can blame him? Tucker’s career field-goal percentage of 90.1 is the best in NFL history, which has made him one of the highest-paid kickers in the league.
Rothe said he has NFL aspirations, too.
“Going into camp, I think I caught myself looking forward too much,” Rothe said. “Just trying to take everything day by day, and we’ll worry about that when it gets here.”
The reality is Rothe’s shot at the next level is just a few months away, which means the Cowboys will soon have to find a replacement for a kicker that’s fourth on the program’s all-time scoring list and climbing. Four years later, Bohl and his staff are worried about that for a different reason.
“We’ll need to sign another one after him,” Bohl said, “and that’s always a challenge.”